Cultures of normal human cells 'age' and become senescent in vitro due to a continuously declining mitotic fraction. Although endothelial cells represent a tissue of major relevance in the development of age-related vascular disease, the rate at which these cells senesce has never been systematically measured in culture. Accordingly the population kinetics of human vascular endothelial cells (HUVECs) serially passaged in vitro has been studied in order to determine (i) the rate of decline in the growth fraction; (ii) the rate of increase of the senescent fraction and (iii) the relationship between changes in these parameters and the baseline rate of apoptosis. Immunocytochemical visualisation of the growth fraction using antisera to the proliferation marker pKi67 showed a rate of decline in the growth fraction of 4.43+/-0.31% per population doubling. This was not accompanied by any change in cell cycle time as assessed using time lapse video microscopy. The number of senescent cells within the population increased at a rate of 6.47+/-0.3% as assessed by senescence associated beta-galactosidase activity. The baseline rate of apoptosis as measured by TUNEL remained essentially unchanged (0.31+/-0.07%) during this process. These data show (i) that senescence and apoptosis are unrelated processes in HUVEC and (ii) that senescent cells rapidly and progressively accumulate in dividing populations of endothelial cells. The physiological relevance of these observations is discussed.