Previous studies have shown that accumulation of tumor ascites fluid results in large part from increased permeability of peritoneal lining vessels (Nagy et al., Cancer Res., 49: 5449-5458, 1989; Nagy et al., Cancer Res., 53: 2631-2643, 1993). However, the specific microvessels rendered hyperpermeable have not been identified nor has the basis of peritoneal vascular hyperpermeability been established. To address these questions, TA3/St and MOT carcinomas, well-characterized transplantable murine tumors that grow in both solid and ascites form, were studied as model systems. Ascites tumor cells of either type were injected i.p. into syngeneic A/Jax and C3Heb/FeJ mice, and ascites fluid and plasma were collected at intervals thereafter up to 8 and 28 days, respectively. Beginning several days after tumor cell injection, small blood vessels located in tissues lining the peritoneal cavity (mesentery, peritoneal wall, and diaphragm) became hyperpermeable to several macromolecular tracers (125I-human serum albumin, FITC-dextran, colloidal carbon, and Monastral Blue B). Increased microvascular permeability correlated with the appearance in ascites fluid of vascular permeability factor (VPF), a tumor cell-secreted mediator that potently enhances vascular permeability to circulating macromolecules. VPF was measured in peritoneal fluid by both a functional bioassay and a sensitive immunofluorometric assay. The VPF concentration, total peritoneal VPF, ascites fluid volume, tumor cell number, and hyperpermeability of peritoneal lining microvessels were found to increase in parallel over time. The close correlation of peritoneal fluid VPF concentration with the development of hyperpermeable peritoneal microvessels in these two well-defined ascites tumors suggests that VPF secretion by tumor cells is responsible, in whole or in part, for initiating and maintaining the ascites pattern of tumor growth.