In healing wounds and many solid tumors, locally increased microvascular permeability results in extravasation of fibrinogen and its extravascular coagulation to form a fibrin gel, with concomitant covalent cross-linking of fibrin by factor XIIIa. Subsequently, inflammatory cells, fibroblasts, and endothelial cells migrate into the gel and organize it into granulation tissue and later into mature collagenous connective tissue. To gain insight into some of the cell migration events associated with these processes, we developed a quantitative in vitro assay that permits the study of fibroblast migration in fibrin gels. Early passage human or rat fibroblasts were allowed to attach to tissue culture dishes and then were overlaid with a thin layer of fibrinogen that was clotted with thrombin. Fibroblasts began to migrate upwards into the fibrin within 24 hours and their numbers and the distance migrated were quantified over several days. The extent of fibroblast migration was affected importantly by the nature of the fibrin clot. Fibroblasts migrated optimally into gels prepared from fibrinogen at concentrations of -3 mg/ml; ie, near normal plasma fibrinogen levels. Migration was greatly enhanced by extensive cross-linking of the fibrin alpha-chains by factor XIIIa, as occurs when clotting takes place in vivo. When fibrinogen was clotted in Dulbecco's modified Eagle's medium, gamma-chains were cross-linked, but alpha-chain cross-linking was strikingly inhibited, and fibroblasts migrated poorly. Gels prepared from factor XIII-depleted fibrinogen exhibited neither alpha-nor gamma-chain cross-linking and did not support fibroblast migration. Further purification of fibrinogen by anion exchange high pressure liquid chromatography depleted fibrinogen of fibronectin, plasminogen, and other impurities; this purified fibrinogen clotted to form fibrin gels that supported reproducible fibroblast migration.