Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is potentially an important regulator of angiogenesis, particularly during the extensive tissue growth and remodeling that occur in utero. In the present study, we have investigated the role of VEGF during human fetal development by analyzing the distribution of VEGF messenger RNA as well as the tissue- and cell-specific localization of VEGF peptide in the human midgestation (16-22 weeks) fetus. As a comparison, we conducted parallel studies on several human adult tissues. Messenger RNA encoding VEGF was detected in all fetal tissues studied and was most abundant in human fetal lung, kidney, and spleen; moderately abundant in heart, adrenal, pancreas, intestine, liver, testis, skin, muscle, and brain; and minimally detected in thymus and placenta. VEGF peptide, detected by immunohistochemistry, always was intracytoplasmic and localized principally in epithelial cells and myocytes, including the smooth muscle cells lining blood vessels. VEGF was not detected in vascular endothelial cells. As the cellular localization of VEGF in several human adult tissues was similar to that found in the cognate fetal tissues, VEGF is probably important not only in angiogenesis, but also in the maintenance of existing vessels. As VEGF was localized primarily in epithelial cells and myocytes and not in endothelial cells, these data are consistent with a paracrine mechanism of action whereby VEGF secreted by nonendothelial cells modulates activities in adjacent vascular endothelium.