Bovine retinal microvascular endothelial cells can display two distinct and reversible morphologies in culture: 'cobblestone' and 'sprouting'. The cobblestone morphology resembles the resting cells lining the lumen of mature vessels while the sprouting morphology resembles the angiogenic cells involved in the formation of new vessels. Retinal cells displayed some heterogeneity in the shape of the cells making up the cobblestone monolayer. In contrast, all cell lines displayed an identical sprouting morphology. We have investigated the synthesis of matrix macromolecules by retinal endothelial cells displaying either the cobblestone or the sprouting morphology. Type IV was the only collagen synthesised by eight different lines of early-passage (between one and six) cobblestone endothelial cells. Collagen types I and III were not detected in these cultures. In contrast, heterogeneity was observed in the types of collagen synthesised by four lines of early-passage cells displaying the sprouting morphology. That is, two lines synthesised collagen types I, III and IV, whereas two other lines continued to synthesise only type IV collagen. Both cobblestone and sprouting cells synthesised fibronectin and thrombospondin, although the relative amounts of these macromolecules varied with culture conditions. The pattern of collagen synthesis by cobblestone cells was also affected by in vitro 'ageing': 4/5 lines examined above passage eight synthesised collagen types I, III and IV. Our results indicate that there is heterogeneity in the sprouting phenotype displayed by retinal endothelial cells, and that this phenotype is not necessarily associated with the synthesis of type I collagen. We suggest that differences in the spectrum of matrix macromolecules synthesised by sprouting endothelial cells may play a role in the control of angiogenesis.