An efficient and reliable procedure for the isolation and culture of endothelium from large vessels of small animals (e.g., rat) is described, which takes advantage of endothelial cell-extracellular matrix interactions to promote the outgrowth of cells from tissue explants. The procedure may also permit the isolation by nonenzymatic means, of endothelial cells from other vessels and tissues. Rings and opened segments of aortic tissue were placed on a variety of substrates including: untreated tissue culture plastic; films of fibronectin, laminin, type I collagen, and gelatin; gels of type I collagen (Vitrogen, Collagen Corporation, Palo Alto, California), of basement membrane components derived from the EHS sarcoma (Matrigel, Collaborative Research Inc., Lexington, Massachusetts), and of agar and agarose. The medium used was OPTI-MEM or RPMI 1640 (Gibco Laboratories, Grand Island, New York) with 3% or 20% fetal calf serum, and 50 micrograms/ml endothelial cell growth supplement. Only explants on Vitrogen and on Matrigel produced a significant and consistent outgrowth of cells and this occurred shortly after the initiation of explants. Virtually no outgrowth occurred from explants on the other substrata, even after 10 days in culture. On Vitrogen gels, the cells emerged from the explants as single stellate and bipolar cells, whereas those on Matrigel grew as chains and sheets from the edges of the explant. Cells were passaged from both types of gels onto plastic or glass surfaces. The passaged cells isolated from both gel matrices exhibited specific endothelial cell characteristics including a "cobbled" morphology at confluence, positive staining for von Willebrand factor, and uptake of Di-I-Ac-low density lipoprotein. Because rat and other small animal aortic endothelial cells are resistant to isolation by enzymatic treatment, this technique provides a simple means to obtain large numbers of this cell type. Further, the method permits study of endothelial cell functions in vitro, and the roles which the extracellular matrix may play in these processes.