Angiogenesis in situ occurs within the interstitial extracellular matrix. The complexity of currently used three-dimensional in vitro angiogenesis systems makes it difficult to quantify cellular growth and neovessel formation. To overcome this problem we were interested to develop an angiogenesis system which allows rapid and reliable quantification of three-dimensional neovessel formation in vitro. Endothelial cells were seeded on gelatine-coated microcarriers (MCs). Cell-coated MCs were suspended in a solution of fibrinogen which was then induced to polymerize by addition of thrombin. By this way, MCs were entrapped in a three-dimensional fibrin matrix. Within a few hours, endothelial cells began to leave their supporting microcarriers and to migrate into the fibrin gel. Without addition of stimulators of angiogenesis, endothelial cells showed incoherent migration into the matrix. In contrast, in response to fibronectin, basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), or vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), respectively, endothelial cells assembled to form multicellular capillary-like structures occasionally exceeding 1000 microns in length. Each MC gave rise to a limited number of capillaries. A single culture dish contained hundreds of MCs, ensuring that a sufficient number of random samples was present for a reliable statistical evaluation. The angiogenic response could be easily quantified by determination of the average number of capillary-like formations per MC (cap/MC). The capillary count for macrovascular endothelial cells from the bovine pulmonary artery was 0.14 cap/MC when no angiogenic stimulators were contained within the fibrin gel. Addition of 200 micrograms/ml fibronectin increased capillary formation to 0.63 cap/MC (P < 0.0001) at Day 6. Already after 3 days, addition of bFGF (30 ng/ml) yielded a capillary count of 1.05 and addition of VEGF (100 ng/ml) resulted in 0.91 cap/MC. In contrast, addition of hyaluronic acid stimulated migration of dispersed endothelial cells into the fibrin matrix without leading to significant capillary formation (0.09 cap/MC). Hydrocortisone alone or in combination with heparin led to a significant inhibition of bFGF-stimulated angiogenesis. We thus have developed a convenient angiogenesis in vitro system which allows reliable quantification of capillary formation in a three-dimensional environment. Based on this assay we conclude that apart from proliferation and migration of endothelial cells, angiogenesis additionally requires the assembly of cells to form multicellular capillaries. This process is strongly induced by the extracellular matrix protein fibronectin. Hyaluronic acid, on the other hand, promotes migration but not capillary formation (assembly).