The smooth muscle cell population in major arteries of humans and experimental animals is heterogeneous with regard to cellular DNA content. A proportion of cells has polyploid DNA content and this proportion increases with normal aging and with hypertension. We have isolated pure populations of rat aortic smooth muscle cells containing 2C, 4C, and 8C DNA content by cloning of cultures of cells previously subjected to flow cytometric cell sorting. Karyologic analysis of these clonal populations revealed them to be pure diploid, tetraploid, and octaploid populations, respectively, containing 2N (= 42), 4N, and 8N chromosomes. Cell attachment area and nuclear size appeared to increase with the level of ploidy. Studies of the proliferative characteristics of the cells revealed that the growth rate and ultimate cell densities achieved decreased as the ploidy level increased. The intrinsic cellular radiosensitivity of these clones did not vary with ploidy. Increased smooth muscle cell ploidy is, therefore, associated with a decreased rate of proliferation. The emergence of smooth muscle cells with polyploid DNA content under normal and pathologic conditions is probably due to mitotic polyploidization without net cell proliferation and may be related to the need for expression of differentiated functions.