To investigate the role of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) in fibrogenesis, the distribution patterns of the VEGF receptors Flt1 and Flk1 were studied by immunohistochemistry, double immunofluorescence, and immunoelectron microscopy in normal (n=2) and bleomycin-treated (n=21) adult rats. Lungs were studied at 5, 24, 28, 35, and 42 days after treatment (p.t.). Flt1, Flk1, and VEGF immunoreactivity localised predominantly to the pulmonary epithelium. In control lungs, Flt1 immunoreactivity was present in ciliated bronchial epithelium and type 2 pneumocytes, Flk1 in Clara cells, and VEGF in Clara cells and type 2 pneumocytes. Flk1 localised to mast cells, present in the peribronchovascular and pleural interstitium only. Flt1- and Flk1-mRNAs were observed in Clara cells and type 2 pneumocytes. Bleomycin-induced fibrogenesis was characterised by a decrease in Flk1 immunoreactivity of Clara cells, and an increase in VEGF-immunoreactive myofibroblasts and type 2 pneumocytes by day 5 p.t., followed by a progressive accumulation of Flk1-immunoreactive mast cells by day 24 p.t. in fibrotic lesions containing VEGF-immunoreactive myofibroblasts. After 42 days, fibrotic regions were densely populated by mast cells. Since mast cells are known to be chemotactically attracted by VEGF, we suggest that VEGF/Flk1 represents the molecular link between proliferation of myofibroblasts, accumulation of mast cells, and the burst of fibrosis at sites of initial lesions in bleomycin-induced fibrosis.