Growth factors may be required at sites of mechanical injury and normal wear and tear in vivo, suggesting that the direct action of mechanical forces on cells could lead to growth factor release. Scraping of cells from the tissue culture substratum at 37 degrees C was used to test this possibility. We show that scraping closely mimics in vitro both the transient plasma membrane wounds observed in cells subject to mechanical forces in vivo (McNeil, P. L., and S. Ito. 1989. Gastroenterology. 96:1238-1248) and the transient plasma membrane wounds shown here to occur in endothelial cells under normal culturing conditions. Scraping of endothelial cells from the culturing substratum released into the culture medium a potent growth-promoting activity for Swiss 3T3 fibroblasts. Growth-promoting activity was released rapidly (within 5 min) after scraping but was not subsequently degraded by the endothelial cells for at least 24 h thereafter. A greater quantity of growth-promoting activity was released by cells scraped 4 h after plating than by those scraped 4 or 7 d afterwards. Thus release is not due to scraping-induced disruption of extracellular matrix. Release was only partially cold inhibitable, was poorly correlated with the level of cell death induced by scraping, and did not occur when cells were killed with metabolic poisons. These results suggest that mechanical disruption of plasma membrane, either transient or permanent, is the essential event leading to release. A basic fibroblast growth factor-like molecule and not platelet-derived growth factor appears to be partially responsible for the growth-promoting activity. We conclude that one biologically relevant route of release of basic fibroblast growth factor, a molecule which lacks the signal peptide sequence for transport into the endoplasmic reticulum, could be directly through mechanically induced membrane disruptions of endothelial cells growing in vivo and in vitro.