The present study compares some phenotypic and physiologic characteristics of microvascular and macrovascular endothelial cells from within one human organ. To this end microvascular endothelial cells from human full-term placenta (PLEC) were isolated using a new method and compared with macrovascular human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC) and an SV40-transformed placental venous endothelial cell line (HPEC-A2). PLEC were isolated by enzymatic perfusion of small placental vessels, purified on a density gradient and cultured subsequently. Histological sections of the enzyme-treated vessels showed a selective removal of the endothelial lining in the perfused placental cotyledons. The endothelial identity of the cells was confirmed by staining with the endothelial markers anti-von Willebrand factor, Ulex europaeus lectin and anti-QBEND10. The cells internalized acetylated low-density lipoprotein and did not show immunoreactivity with markers for macrophages, smooth muscle cells and fibroblasts. The spindle-shaped PLEC grew in swirling patterns similar to that described for venous placental endothelial cells. However, scanning electron microscopic examination clearly showed that PLEC remained elongated at the confluent state, in contrast to the more polygonal phenotype of HPEC-A2 and HUVEC that were studied in parallel. The amount of vasoactive substances (endothelin-1,2, thromboxane, angiotensin II, prostacyclin) released into the culture medium and the proliferative response to cytokines was more similar to human dermal microvessels (MIEC) derived from non-fetal tissue than to HUVEC. Potent mitogens such as vascular endothelial growth factors (VEGF121, VEGF165) and basic fibroblast growth factor (FGF-2) induced proliferation of all endothelial cell types. Placental growth factors PIGF-1 and PIGF-2 effectively stimulated cell proliferation on PLEC (142 +/- 7% and 173 +/- 10%) and MIEC (160 +/- 20% and 143 +/- 28%) in contrast to HUVEC (9 +/- 8% and 15 +/- 20%) and HPEC-A2 (15 +/- 7% and 24 +/- 6%) after 48 h incubation time under serum-free conditions. These data support evidence for (1) the microvascular identity of the isolated PLEC described in this study, and (2) the phenotypic and physiologic heterogeneity of micro- and macrovascular endothelial cells within one human organ.