We have previously shown that the tumor promoter 4 beta-phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) induces capillary endothelial cells grown to confluency on the surface of three-dimensional collagen gels to invade the underlying matrix and to form capillary-like tubular structures, a phenomenon mimicking angiogenic processes that occur in vivo (Montesano and Orci: Cell, 42:469-477, 1985). Since angiogenesis frequently occurs within a fibrin-rich extracellular matrix, we have examined the ability of PMA-treated endothelial cells to invade fibrin gels. Control endothelial cells grown on fibrin gels formed a confluent monolayer on the gel surface and did not invade the underlying matrix. Treatment of the cultures with PMA resulted in a progressive lysis of the substrate without invasion of the fibrin matrix. However, if the cells were treated with PMA either in the presence of fibrinolytic inhibitors (Trasylol, epsilon-aminocaproic acid) or in the absence of detectable plasminogen, dissolution of the substrate was prevented, and the endothelial cells invaded the fibrin gel, forming vessel-like tubular structures similar to those previously observed with collagen gels. These results demonstrate that the invasive and morphogenetic events induced by PMA do not necessarily require an interaction between endothelial cells and collagen fibrils but can also occur with other biologically relevant substrata. They also suggest (1) that invasion may occur via a plasmin-independent mechanism and (2) that in vivo, neutralization of excess proteolytic activity may play an important permissive role in angiogenesis and other invasive processes by preventing uncontrolled matrix degradation.