Expression of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), an angiogenic factor and endothelial cell-specific mitogen, is induced by hypoxia in various cell lines as well as in solid tumors. In this study, we report that cell density has a profound effect on the expression of VEGF in human glioblastoma cells (U87) and human fibrosarcoma cells (HT1080), an effect that is independent of hypoxia. Northern blot analysis revealed that VEGF mRNA levels were four- to eightfold higher in cells seeded at high density compared to cells seeded at low density. This upregulation of VEGF message in response to seeding at high density was not seen with other mRNAs such as those for TGF-beta1 or GAPDH. Conditioned medium switch experiments between sparse and dense cells suggested that soluble factor(s) may not account for the observed changes in VEGF expression. Incubation with genistein, a protein tyrosine kinase inhibitor, for 3 h following seeding resulted in the reduction of the VEGF mRNA levels in highly confluent cultures but not in sparse cultures. To identify protein tyrosine kinases involved in the upregulation of the steady-state levels of VEGF mRNA in highly dense cultures, we analyzed the phosphorylation state of the c-src tyrosine kinase, in high versus low confluency cultures of U87 and HT1080 cells. Interestingly, an increased phosphorylation at Tyr416 of c-src was noted in high compared to low confluency, suggesting the activation of c-src in highly confluent cultures. Because extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERKs) such as MAP kinase have been shown to be activated by extracellular stimuli and act downstream of c-src, we examined their possible involvement in this process. We found that the tyrosine phosphorylation level of MAP kinase is higher in dense compared to sparse cultures and, moreover, 6-thioguanine (6-TG), a potent inhibitor of ERKs, reduced VEGF mRNA levels in high but not low confluency. Furthermore, reintroduction of wild-type, but not mutant, von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) gene product in 786-O cells (a renal carcinoma cell line) specifically abrogated the induction of VEGF mRNA due to high cell density. Taken together, these data suggest that VEGF gene expression is regulated by cell density, and the protooncogene c-src and the tumor-suppressor VHL are modulators of this regulation.