We have shown previously that FGF induces lens epithelial cells in explant culture to proliferate, migrate and differentiate into fibre cells in a progressive concentration-dependent manner. In situ, these processes occur in a distinct anterior-posterior pattern in clearly defined regions of the lens. Thus anterior-posterior differences in the bio-availability of FGF in the lens environment may play a role in determining lens polarity and growth patterns. In this study, using heparin chromatography and western blotting (or ELISA), we established that both acidic and basic FGF are present in the aqueous and vitreous (the ocular media that bathe the anterior and posterior compartments of the lens, respectively). In addition, substantially more FGF was recovered from vitreous than from aqueous. Both forms of FGF were also detected in lens fibre cells and capsule. A truncated form of basic FGF (less than 20 x 10(3) M(r)) predominated in every case with traces of higher M(r) forms in lens cells. For acidic FGF, the classical full-length form (about 20 x 10(3) M(r)) predominated in lens cells and a truncated form was found in vitreous. The capsule contained a higher M(r) form. Using our explant system, we also tested the biological activity of ocular media and FGF fractions obtained from vitreous and lens cells. Vitreous but not aqueous contained fibre-differentiating activity. Furthermore, virtually all the fibre-differentiating activity of vitreous was shown to be FGF-associated, as follows: (a) this activity remained associated with FGF during fractionation of vitreous by heparin and Mono-S chromatography and (b) the activity of the major FGF-containing fraction was blocked by antibodies to acidic and basic FGF. Posterior, but not anterior, capsule was shown to have mitogenic activity, which was neutralised by FGF antibodies and associated only with the cellular surface. These results support our hypothesis that FGF is involved in determining the behaviour of lens cells in situ. In particular, a key role for FGF in determining lens polarity and growth patterns is suggested by the anterior-posterior differences in the bio-availability of FGF in the ocular media and capsule.