Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is a potent chemotactic agent for endothelial cells. Yet the signalling pathways that modulate the motogenic effects of VEGF in vascular endothelial cells are still ill defined. In the present study, we found in primary cultures of human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC) that VEGF increased cell migration and induced a marked reorganization of the microfilament network that was characterized by the formation of stress fibers and the recruitment of vinculin to focal adhesions. VEGF also stimulated the mitogen activated protein (MAP) kinases ERK (extracellular signal-regulated kinase) and p38 (stress activated protein kinase-2), but not SAPK1/JNK (stress activated protein kinase-1/c-Jun NH2-terminal kinase). Activation of p38 resulted in activation of MAP kinase activated protein kinase-2/3 and phosphorylation of the F-actin polymerization modulator, heat shock protein 27 (HSP27). Inhibiting the VEGF-induced activation of ERK with PD098059 did not influence actin organization or cell migration but totally inhibited the VEGF-induced incorporation of thymidine into DNA. Inhibition of p38 activity by the specific inhibitor SB203580 led to an inhibition of HSP27 phosphorylation, actin reorganization and cell migration. The results indicate that the p38 pathway conveys the VEGF signal to microfilaments inducing rearrangements of the actin cytoskeleton that regulate cell migration. By modulating cell migration, p38 may thus be an important regulator of angiogenesis.