Heparin inhibits proteolytic digestion of heparin-binding growth factor-I (HBGF-I) by trypsin, plasmin and other proteases. This property is lost after thermal denaturation of HBGF-I, suggesting that a heparin:HBGF-I structural interaction rather than a heparin:trypsin interaction is responsible for the resistance of HBGF-I to digestion with trypsin. Heparin is also able to partially protect HBGF-I from thermal denaturation as demonstrated by the ability of heparin to protect HBGF-I from trypsin digestion. The protective effect of heparin is dependent upon the concentration of heparin as well as temperature and duration of denaturation. Autoradiography of 125I-HBGF-I incubated with human umbilical vein endothelial cells demonstrates near complete protection of HBGF-I from proteolytic modification when the incubation is performed in the presence of heparin. These data suggest that (i) the mechanism of the heparin-induced increase in human endothelial cell number at confluence involves the protection of HBGF-I by heparin against proteolytic inactivation and (ii) heparin provides conformational stability to the proteolytic growth factor which reduces the susceptibility of HBGF-I to denaturation.