"Sprouting" vascular endothelial cells were used as an in vitro model system to study the progressive morphologic and biosynthetic changes associated with the formation of tubular structures. In vitro, sprouting endothelial cells formed spontaneously without the addition of any exogenous factors from cultures of cloned endothelium exhibiting a polygonal/cobblestone phenotype. These phenotypically variant endothelial cells differentiated to form associated cell networks or nodules which gradually reorganized into tubular structures. Concomitant with these morphologic changes, the biosynthesis of extracellular matrix proteins was modulated, as determined by Northern blot analysis, metabolic labeling, and immunocytochemistry. The initial sprouting phase was characterized by the induction of type I collagen synthesis and the appearance of fibronectin containing the ED-A domain, in comparison to their absence in cloned cultures displaying a stable polygonal/cobblestone phenotype. The organizational stage, where the sprouting endothelial cells assembled into tubular structures, was additionally characterized by the expression of type IV collagen. These studies demonstrate that the progression from polygonal/cobblestone to sprouting cultures, and subsequent tubular organization, involves major alterations in extracellular matrix protein expression. This developmental phenomenon, although not completely analogous to blood vessel formation in vivo, nevertheless may be helpful in understanding the role of matrix macromolecules in the angiogenic process.