Basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) exhibits specific binding to the extracellular matrix (ECM) produced by cultured endothelial cells. Binding was saturable as a function both of time and of concentration of 125I-bFGF. Scatchard analysis of FGF binding revealed the presence of about 1.5 X 10(12) binding sites/mm2 ECM with an apparent kD of 610nM. FGF binds to heparan sulfate (HS) in ECM as evidenced by (i) inhibition of binding in the presence of heparin or HS at 0.1-1 micrograms/mL, but not by chondroitin sulfate, keratan sulfate, or hyaluronic acid at 10 micrograms/mL, (ii) lack of binding to ECM pretreated with heparitinase, but not with chondroitinase ABC, and (iii) rapid release of up to 90% of ECM-bound FGF by exposure to heparin, HS, or heparitinase, but not to chondroitin sulfate, keratan sulfate, hyaluronic acid, or chondroitinase ABC. Oligosaccharides derived from depolymerized heparin, and as small as the tetrasaccharide, released the ECM-bound FGF, but there was little or no release of FGF by modified nonanticoagulant heparins such as totally desulfated heparin, N-desulfated heparin, and N-acetylated heparin. FGF released from ECM was biologically active, as indicated by its stimulation of cell proliferation and DNA synthesis in vascular endothelial cells and 3T3 fibroblasts. Similar results were obtained in studies on release of endogenous FGF-like mitogenic activity from Descemet's membranes of bovine corneas. It is suggested that ECM storage and release of bFGF provide a novel mechanism for regulation of capillary blood vessel growth. Whereas ECM-bound FGF may be prevented from acting on endothelial cells, its displacement by heparin-like molecules and/or HS-degrading enzymes may elicit a neovascular response.