Mast cells play an essential role during development of inflammation after chemical and immunological insults and have been implicated in tissue fibrosis and angiogenesis. The exact contribution of mast cells to these conditions is largely unknown. In this study, we found that a potent angiogenic and mitogenic polypeptide, basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), is localized to the majority of mast cells from normal skin and lung and in tissue samples characterized by fibrosis, hyperplasia, and neovascularization. Using specific antibodies to mast cell tryptase, tissue macrophage, and bFGF, we demonstrate that cytoplasmic bFGF immunoreactivity is localized to 96.8 +/- 9.6% of tryptase-positive cells in human fibrotic lung tissue (n = 10), 82.3 +/- 6.9% of tryptase-positive cells in rheumatoid synovia (n = 6), and 93.1 +/- 4.8% of tryptase-positive cells in skin hemangioma (n = 5). Moreover, these tryptase-positive cells comprise a major portion (86 to 97%) of nonvascular cells exhibiting cytoplasmic bFGF staining in these tissues. In contrast, macrophage-like cells contribute less than 10% of the bFGF-positive cells in the same samples. The specificity of the immunostaining results was supported by the finding that cultured human mast cells (HMC-1) express both bFGF mRNA and protein. Our data indicate that mast cells, a primary source of heparin, also serve as a significant source of a heparin-binding growth factor, bFGF, in these disease processes. These observations suggest that mast cells may contribute to these pathological conditions by releasing this polypeptide.