Basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) is a potent mitogen for several types of cells, including glial cells, which also seem to express bFGF. We have used rat C6 glioma cells as a model system to study the expression and release of bFGF by glioma cells, as well as the effects of exogenous bFGF on these cells. We have shown that C6 cells, express 18 kD bFGF and several higher molecular weight immunoreactive forms. The expression of bFGF could be induced by a factor present in fetal calf serum. Subsequent to its initial appearance, bFGF is regulated in a cell density-dependent manner. Neither bFGF-like immunoreactive material, nor bFGF-like neurotrophic activity were found to be released by C6 cells. Exogenously applied bFGF changed C6 cell morphology similar to cyclic AMP induced alterations but had no significant influence on C6 cell proliferation and biochemical differentiation. From these results we conclude that bFGF in C6 cells might act as an endogenous (not autocrine) mitogen. Possible roles for bFGF in glial cells are discussed.