Migration of capillary endothelial cells is an important component of angiogenesis in vivo. Increased numbers of mast cells have been associated with several types of angiogenesis. We have used a quantitative assay in vitro to demonstrate that mast cells release a factor that significantly increases bovine capillary endothelial cell migration. The factor is present in medium conditioned by mast cells as well as lysates of mast cells. The stimulatory effect of mast cells on migration is specific for capillary endothelial cells. Furthermore, mast cells have no mitogenic activity for capillary endothelial cells. Of all the secretory products of mast cells tested, only heparin stimulated capillary endothelial cell migration in vitro. Heparin preparations from a variety of sources stimulated capillary endothelial cell migration to the same degree but did not stimulate migration of several other cell types. The migration activity of heparin and mast cell conditioned medium was blocked by specific antagonists of heparin (protamine and heparinase), but not by chondroitinase ABC. The migration activity of mast cell conditioned medium was resistant to heat (100 degrees C) and incubation with proteolytic enzymes. These results suggest that the role of mast cells in angiogenesis may be to enhance migration of the endothelial cells of growing capillaries.