Experimental conditions have been defined that allow bovine corneal endothelial (BCE) cells to grow in the complete absence of serum. Low density BCE cell cultures maintained on extracellular matrix (ECM)-coated dishes and plated in the total absence of serum proliferate actively when exposed to a synthetic medium supplemented with high density lipoprotein (HDL 500 micrograms protein/ml), transferrin (10 micrograms/ml), insulin (5 micrograms/ml), and fibroblast (FGF) or epidermal growth factor (EGF) added at concentrations of 100 or 50 ng/ml, respectively. Omission of any of these components results in a lower growth rate and/or final cell density of the cultures. BCE cell cultures plated on plastic dishes and exposed to the same synthetic medium grow very poorly. The longevity of BCE cultures maintained on plastic versus ECM and exposed to serum-free virus serum-containing medium has been studied. The use of ECM-coated dishes extended the life span of BCE cultures maintained in serum-supplemented medium to over 120 generations, as compared to less than 20 generations for cultures maintained on plastic. Likewise, BCE cells maintained on ECM and exposed to a synthetic medium supplemented with optimal concentrations of HDL, transferrin, insulin, and FGF underwent 85 generations, whereas control cultures maintained on plastic could not be passaged. The enhancing effect of ECM on BCE cell growth and culture longevity clearly illustrates the importance of the cell substrate in the control of proliferation of these cells.