Fibronectin is a component of the extracellular matrix of developing microvessels whose role in angiogenesis is poorly understood. This study evaluated the effect of plasma fibronectin on angiogenesis in serum-free collagen gel culture of rat aorta. Aortic explants embedded in collagen gels generated microvascular outgrowths. Fibronectin incorporated in the collagen gel promoted a selective dose-dependent elongation of the newly formed microvessels without stimulating vascular proliferation. The fibronectin-treated microvessels were longer due to a proportional increase in the number of microvascular cells. However, fibronectin had no effect on microvascular DNA synthesis and mitotic activity. Fibronectin stimulated microvascular length also in cultures in which mitotic activity was suppressed and angiogenesis was markedly reduced by pretreating the aortic explants with mitomycin C. The synthetic peptide Gly-Arg-Gly-Asp-Ser (GRGDS), which competes for the binding of fibronectin to its cell receptors and inhibits the adhesion of endothelial cells to substrates, arrested the elongation of developing microvessels causing regression and inhibition of angiogenesis. Conversely, Gly-Arg-Gly-Glu-Ser (GRGES), which lacks the RGD sequence, had no inhibitory effect. These data support the hypothesis that fibronectin promotes angiogenesis and suggest that developing microvessels elongate in response to fibronectin as a result of an adhesion-dependent migratory recruitment of endothelial cells that does not require increased cell proliferation.