The purpose of this study was to investigate the role of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) in the rat aorta model of angiogenesis. Freshly cut aortic rings generated microvascular outgrowths in serum-free collagen gel culture. Angiogenesis was reduced to 10% when the explants were embedded in collagen 10 to 14 days after excision from the animal. Immunochemical studies of conditioned medium demonstrated secretion of VEGF by the aortic cultures. Levels of VEGF decreased during the second week of culture when the explants became quiescent and microvessels stopped growing. Treatment of quiescent aortic rings with exogenous VEGF stimulated angiogenesis and restored microvascular growth to values observed in cultures of freshly cut explants. Reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction of vasoformative collagen gel cultures of rat aorta demonstrated the expression of the alternatively spliced isoforms VEGF165, VEGF189, and the high affinity VEGF receptor flk-1. Reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction of rat aorta-derived cell strains confirmed the presence of VEGF165 and VEGF189 in endothelial cells, smooth muscle cells, and fibroblasts. The flk-1 receptor was expressed by endothelial cells but not by fibroblasts or smooth muscle cells, which is consistent with the endothelial target specificity of VEGF. The spontaneous angiogenic response of freshly cut aortic rings was inhibited by 70% with a neutralizing antibody against VEGF, whereas nonimmune IgG had no effect (P < 0.001). These findings provide evidence for a VEGF-mediated autocrine/paracrine regulation of angiogenesis in the rat aorta model.