Subconfluent bovine pulmonary artery endothelial cells on rigid substrates were exposed to 1.5-15 cm H2O sustained hydrostatic pressure for up to 7 days and exhibited elongation, cytoskeletal rearrangement, increased cell proliferation, and bilayering. The role of basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) in the mechanism(s) of these endothelial cell responses to sustained hydrostatic pressure was investigated. Evidence that bFGF was released from endothelial cells exposed to sustained hydrostatic pressure or compression was provided by the following experimental results: 1) Cells exposed to control (3 mm H2O) pressure displayed intense nuclear and cytoplasmic bFGF staining by immunocytochemical techniques; this staining was absent in cells exposed to 10 cm H2O for 7 days. 2) Conditioned medium from endothelial cells exposed to 10 cm H2O for 7 days contained a transferable, growth-promoting activity exhibiting heparin-Sepharose affinity, lability to both heat and freeze/thawing, and neutralization by anti-bovine bFGF. 3) Suramin (0.1 mM), a growth-factor receptor inhibitor, abrogated the proliferative and morphological responses of endothelial cells exposed to sustained hydrostatic pressure. Endothelial cells exposed to elevated hydrostatic pressure demonstrated no detectable decrement in cell viability as assessed by Trypan blue exclusion. The results of the present study indicate that hydrostatic pressure or compression can induce bFGF release from endothelial cells independent of cell injury or death; bFGF is subsequently responsible for the morphological, proliferative, and bilayering responses of endothelial cells to hydrostatic pressure.