Peptide growth factors and other physiological growth modifiers were evaluated for their ability to stimulate DNA synthesis in early passage cultures of bovine corneal endothelial cells (BCEC). Increasing concentrations of newborn bovine serum (0.5-10%) causes a progressive increase in DNA synthesis, which approached a plateau at 10% serum. Supplementing medium with 10% serum from different lots of newborn bovine serum or fetal bovine serum stimulated significantly different levels of DNA synthesis by BCEC. Addition of epidermal growth factor (EGF) (2 nM) to medium containing 10% newborn or fetal bovine serum further increased DNA synthesis. Dose-response curves for EGF, transforming growth factor-alpha, basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), and insulin-like growth factor I showed that each significantly stimulated high levels of DNA synthesis (200-700% increase) compared with BCEC cultured in serum-free medium. Vaccinia growth factor, insulin, and transforming growth factor-beta each significantly stimulated lower levels of DNA synthesis (30-200% increase), whereas nerve growth factor, multiplication stimulating activity, and platelet-derived growth factor all failed to significantly stimulate DNA synthesis above the level of serum-free medium. Other physiological growth modifiers were tested for their effects on DNA synthesis of BCEC. Transferrin and low levels of 3',5'-cyclic monophosphate (cAMP) stimulated very low levels of DNA synthesis (50% increase) whereas linoleic acid, high levels of selenium, or cAMP each inhibited DNA synthesis 25-75% below the level of BCEC cultured in serum-free medium. A series of eight formulations containing various combinations of EGF, FGF, insulin, transferrin, selenium, linoleic acid, retinoic acid, cAMP, heparin, and endothelial cell growth factor were tested for their mitogenic action on BCEC cultures. A formulation containing EGF, insulin, transferrin, selenium, and linoleic acid (EGF + ITSL) stimulated the highest level of DNA synthesis of BCEC, which was approximately 25% higher than the increase stimulated by addition of 10% newborn bovine serum. The formulation consisting of EGF + ITSL was also evaluated as a supplement to corneal storage media. Addition of EGF + ITSL to three corneal storage media (McCarey-Kaufman, K-Sol, CSM) significantly stimulated increases in cell numbers of approximately 50% above the unsupplemented corneal storage media. These results demonstrate that BCEC respond selectively to different defined peptide growth factors and physiological growth modifiers, and suggest that supplementation of corneal storage media with a defined formulation (EGF + ITSL) may enhance corneal endothelial cell density.