Vascular endothelial cells cultured in the presence of fibroblast growth factor (FGF) adopt at confluence a morphological appearance similar to that of the vascular endothelium in vivo. Similarly, their apical cell surface is, as in vivo, nonthrombogenic. In contrast, when the cultures are maintained in the absence of FGF, the cells undergo within two to three passages structural and functional alterations that are incompatible with their in vivo morphological appearance and physiological function. Cultures maintained in the absence of FGF no longer adopt, upon reaching confluence, the configuration of a monolayer composed of small closely apposed and nonoverlapping, cuboidal cells. Instead, confluent cultures deprived of FGF consist of large, overlapping cells which have lost the polarity of cell surface characteristic of the vascular endothelium. The apical cell surface becomes thrombogenic, as reflected by its ability to bind platelets, whereas fibronectin, which at confluence is normally associated only with the basal cell surface, can be found both on top of and underneath the cell layer. Among other changes, both sparse and confluent cultures maintained in the absence of FGF showed a greatly increased production of fibronectin. CSP-60, a cell surface protein whose appearance is correlative with the adoption of a cell monolayer configuration, can no longer be detected in cultures maintained in the absence of FGF. Overlapping endothelial cells maintained in the absence of FGF can also no longer function as a protective barrier against the uptake of ligands such as low density lipoprotein. Exposure of the culture to FGF induces a restoration of the normal endothelial characteristics concomitant with the adoption of a flattened cell monolayer morphology. These results demonstrate that, in addition to being a mitogen. FGF is involved in controlling the differentiation and phenotypic expression of the vascular endothelium. This is reflected by its effect on the morphological appearance, polarity of cell surfaces, platelet binding capacity, and barrier function of the vascular endothelium.

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