Injection of basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) into the eye, intravitreally or subretinally, delays photoreceptor degeneration in inherited retinal dystrophy in the rat, as does local injury to the retina (Faktorovich et al., 1990). To determine whether this heparin-binding peptide or local injury is effective in any other form of photoreceptor degeneration, we examined their protective roles in light damage. Albino rats of the F344 strain were exposed to 1 or 2 weeks of constant fluorescent light (115-200 footcandles), either with or without 1 microliter of bFGF solution (1150 ng/microliters in PBS) injected intravitreally or subretinally 2 d before the start of light exposure. Uninjected and intravitreally PBS-injected controls showed the loss of a majority of photoreceptor nuclei and the loss of most inner and outer segments after 1 week of light exposure, while intravitreal injection of bFGF resulted in significant photoreceptor rescue. The outer nuclear layer in bFGF-injected eyes was two to three times thicker than in controls, and the inner and outer segments showed a much greater degree of integrity. Following recovery in cyclic light for 10 d after 1 week of constant light exposure, bFGF-injected eyes showed much greater regeneration of photoreceptor inner and outer segments than did the controls. bFGF also increased the incidence of presumptive macrophages, located predominantly in the inner retina, but the evidence suggests they are not directly involved in photoreceptor rescue. Subretinal injection of bFGF resulted in photoreceptor rescue throughout most of the superior hemisphere in which the injection was made, with rescue extending into the inferior hemisphere in many of the eyes. Remarkably, the insertion of a dry needle or injection of PBS into the subretinal space also resulted in widespread photoreceptor rescue, extending through 70% or more of the superior hemisphere, and sometimes into the inferior hemispheres. This implicates the release and widespread diffusion of some endogenous survival-promoting factor from the site of injury in the retina. Our findings indicate that the photoreceptor rescue activity of bFGF is not restricted to inherited retinal dystrophy in the rat, and that light damage is an excellent model for studying the cellular site(s), kinetics, and molecular mechanisms of both the normal function of bFGF and its survival-promoting activity. Moreover, the injury-related rescue suggests that survival-promoting factors are readily available to provide a protective role in case of injury to the retina, presumably comparable to those that mediate the "conditioning lesion" effect in other neuronal systems.