Cultured neonatal rat cardiac fibroblasts (NF) and myocytes (NM) were used to examine the distribution of angiotensin II (ANG II) receptors and the potential role of NF in mediating the trophic response to ANG II in the heart. In NM preparations cultured for 2-5 days, specific binding to 125I-ANG II was < 10% of the specific binding in cultured NF. Binding assays, immunocytochemistry, and autoradiography in NM cultured for > 5 days identified two populations of cells, one with fibroblast-like morphology and high density of ANG II receptors and another with low binding, comparable to NM cultures at day 5 or earlier. Conditioned medium (CM) from untreated NF increased cell surface area and net [3H]leucine (Leu) incorporation 1.4-fold in NM. CM from ANG II-treated NF enhanced [3H]Leu incorporation 2.2-fold in NM. This potentiating effect of ANG II was inhibited by losartan and was absent when ANG II was added directly to NM. In addition, studies using antibodies and bioassay for transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF-beta 1) suggested that TGF-beta 1 does not mediate the trophic effects of ANG II on NM. We conclude that ANG II receptors are localized predominantly on NF and that ANG II can indirectly stimulate hypertrophy of NM by stimulating NF to produce a transferrable factor(s). These data suggest that cardiac fibroblasts may play a critical role in mediating the hypertrophic response to ANG II in the rat heart.