The activity of acidic and basic fibroblast growth factor-like mitogens (aFGF, bFGF) extracted from cultured bovine aortic endothelial (BAEC) and rat aortic smooth muscle cells (SMC) was compared with that of freshly isolated cells from the same tissues. Extracts of subendothelial extracellular matrix (ECM) and cell lysates of cultured BAEC contained 4-fold more bFGF-like activity than the extracts of fresh cells. ECM and cell lysates of SMC yielded 10-fold more bFGF-like activity than the fresh cell lysates. We consistently find aFGF-like activity in both cell types. In the case of BAEC, cultured cells and ECM contained 3-fold more aFGF-like activity when compared with freshly isolated cells, whereas in cultured SMC, aFGF-like activity in cell and ECM extracts was 8-fold higher than in fresh cell extracts. The mitogens extracted from cell lysates and from the ECM are closely related to aFGF or bFGF by the criteria that they bind to heparin-sepharose and elute at 1.1 M (aFGF) or 1.5 M (bFGF) NaCl, have molecular weights of about 18,000, and react with anti-aFGF (1.1 M), or anti-bFGF (1.5 M) antibodies when analyzed by Western blots and by radioimmunoassay specific for aFGF and bFGF. This mitogenic activity is inhibited by neutralizing antibodies to aFGF and bFGF. In addition, the column fractions are potent mitogens for Balb/c 3T3 fibroblasts. Acidic and basic FGF-like mitogenic activity could also be extracted from the cell nuclei. The subcellular localization of both FGFs was visualized in both nuclei and cytoplasm with immunoperoxidase. Compared with primary SMC, secondary SMC had an increased capacity to bind 125IaFGF to high affinity receptors, while binding to freshly isolated BAEC and SMC was negligible. We conclude that FGFs are present at low levels in freshly isolated cells and that propagation in cell culture provides a stimulus for production of these mitogens.