In vitro effects of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) on heart development and total embryonic growth were investigated in 84 rat embryos (obtained from nine pregnant females) at 9.5 days of gestation that were cultured in whole rat serum (WRS), in <30 kDa + >50 kDa serum fractions [retenate (R)], and in R + VEGF. After 24-h culture, the embryos from each group were harvested and divided into two groups. One group was analysed morphologically and biochemically to obtain embryo protein content, the second group was serially sectioned and examined by light microscopy. Morphological score, embryo protein content, somite number and crown-rump length of embryos indicated that embryos cultured in R had significant embryonic retardation, whereas the addition of VEGF to R increased embryonic growth and development. The morphological scores for WRS, R and R + VEGF were 57.7 +/- 0.87, 46.6 +/- 1.90 and 52.1 +/- 0.97, somite numbers were 26.5 +/- 0.47, 20.1 +/- 0.63 and 24.4 +/- 0.46, crown-rump lengths were 3 +/- 0.07, 2.4 +/- 0.06 and 2.7 +/- 0.06 mm, and embryo protein contents were 160.5 +/- 7.41, 98.2 +/- 4.81 and 141.1 +/- 10.96 mug per embryo, respectively. The results of histological examination of heart development were similar. The hearts of embryos grown in R were unseptated and tubular. The atrioventricular endocardial cushions were incompletely developed. The addition of VEGF to R improved heart development. There were no gross morphological differences in the cardiac development between embryos grown in WRS and R + VEGF. In both groups, development of the muscular interventricular septum had begun. Development of the atrioventricular cushions was also similar in both groups and had caused narrowing of the atrioventricular canals, but the atrial septation was not observed.