The immunolocalization of tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) was assessed in vessels of various sizes from baboons. Femoral artery and vein, carotid artery, aorta, and sections from basal ganglia and cerebral cortex were stained for tPA and CD31, an endothelial cell-specific surface antigen. In each case, the endothelium of the large vessel stained positively for anti-CD31 but not for tPA. However, vascular structures in the adventitia corresponding to the vasa vasorum were found to be associated with tPA antigen. In situ hybridization of femoral artery with 35S-labeled cRNA probes detected tPA mRNA in the vasa vasorum but not the large vessel endothelium. Analysis of the microvasculature of the basal ganglia and cerebral cortex showed limited immunohistochemical staining for tPA; only 3% of the vessels measuring 4 to 100 mu were positive. Even so, tPA was mostly distributed within a narrow range of vessel size; 90% of the positive vessels were classified as precapillary arterioles and postcapillary venules (7.5 to 30.0 mu), whereas only 3% of the capillaries were positive, despite accounting for 40% of all vessels. Thus, tPA-containing endothelium are distributed mainly in smaller vessels, excluding the capillaries.