Suggestions exist that, in addition to traditional growth factors, the extracellular matrix (ECM) of a cell can regulate its proliferation. This hypothesis was investigated with normal and transformed fibroblasts because they exhibit specific intracellular responses after adherence to ECM and produce large quantities of ECM proteins. Although cells cultured on different ECM proteins grew more rapidly than those on plastic, adherence and cell growth on an individual ECM protein were not correlated. To test if ECM can stimulate cell growth, soluble ECM proteins were given to cells after plating. In this culture system only collagen VI (CVI), at a concentration of 20 microg/ml in medium, increased 3T3 cell number to 402% of control by 72 h. Similar increases of human fibroblasts and HT 1080 cell numbers were noted. DNA synthesis of all three cell types increased 24 h after addition of soluble CVI. A mixture of CVI single chains, yielded by reduction and alkylation, was not stimulatory. However, this mixture efficiently inhibited the DNA synthesis induced by native CVI. Antibody inhibition studies showed that the region of CVI stimulating proliferation differs from the site bound by the integrin receptor alpha2beta1, which mediates cell adhesion to immobilized CVI. Heparin inhibited a portion of CVI-induced proliferation. These data demonstrate that CVI can stimulate mesenchymal cell growth via a pathway that is independent of the integrin alpha2beta1 and that the stimulatory region appears to be within the native helical portion of the collagen.