gp38k (CHI3L1) is a secreted heparin-binding glycoprotein whose expression, in vitro, is associated with vascular smooth muscle cell (VSMC) migration and invasion into the underlying gelatinous matrix. gp38k is expressed at high levels in postconfluent "nodular" VSMC cultures and at low levels in subconfluent proliferating cultures. In vivo, expression of gp38k homologs is high in regions of tissue remodeling and now has been detected in atherosclerotic plaques and in the developing heart. We tested the hypothesis that gp38k functions to modulate VSMC adhesion and migration. By use of modified Boyden chambers, gp38k at a concentration as low as 1 ng/ml has profound effects on VSMC migration but little or no effect on fibroblast migration. In addition, gp38k adsorbed to polystyrene surfaces directly promotes VSMC attachment and spreading. Attachment is inhibited in the presence of affinity-purified anti-gp38k or 10 mM EDTA. These results establish that gp38k is a new vascular cell adhesion and migration factor that may have a role in processes leading to vascular occlusion and heart development. gp38k may interact with VSMC via an EDTA-sensitive mechanism consistent with integrin mediated cell-matrix interaction.