Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) was identified as a heparin-binding polypeptide mitogen with a target cell specificity restricted to vascular endothelial cells. Molecular cloning reveals the existence of four species of VEGF having 121, 165, 189, and 206 amino acids. These have strikingly different secretion patterns, which suggests multiple physiological roles for this family of polypeptides. The two shorter forms are efficiently secreted, while the longer ones are mostly cell-associated. Alternative splicing of mRNA, rather that transcription from different genes, is the mechanism for their generation. In situ hybridization reveals that the VEGF mRNA is widely distributed in most tissues and organs and expressed at particularly high levels in areas of active vascular proliferation, like the ovarian corpus luteum. Ligand autoradiography on rat tissue sections demonstrates that VEGF binding sites are associated with vascular endothelial cells of both fenestrated and non-fenestrated capillaries and with the endothelium of large vessels, while no displaceable binding is evident on non-endothelial cell types. These findings support the hypothesis that VEGF plays a highly specific role in the maintenance and in the induction of growth of vascular endothelial cells.