Cultured bovine capillary endothelial (BCE) cells synthesize heparan sulfate proteoglycans (HSPG), which are both secreted into the culture medium and deposited in the cell layer. The nonsoluble HSPGs can be isolated as two predominant species: a larger 800-kD HSPG, which is recovered from preparations of extracellular matrix, and a 250-kD HSPG, which is solubilized by nonionic detergent extraction of the cells. Both HSPG species bind bFGF. 125I-bFGF bound to BCE cell cultures is readily released by either heparinase or plasmin. When released by plasmin, the growth factor is recovered from the incubation medium as a complex with the partly degraded high molecular mass HSPG. Endogenous bFGF activity is released by a proteolytic treatment of cultured BCE cells. The bFGF-binding HSPGs are also released when cultures are incubated with the inactive proenzyme plasminogen. Under such experimental conditions, the release of the extracellular proteoglycans can be enhanced by treating the cells either with bFGF, which increases the plasminogen activating activity expressed by the cells, or decreased by treating the cells with transforming growth factor beta, which decreases the plasminogen activating activity of the cells. Specific immune antibodies raised against bovine urokinase also block the release of HSPG from BCE cell cultures. We propose that this plasminogen activator-mediated proteolysis provides a mechanism for the release of biologically active bFGF-HSPG complexes from the extracellular matrix and that bFGF release can be regulated by the balance between factors affecting the pericellular proteolytic activity.