Nevus cells are of biologic interest because of their uncertain relationship to epidermal melanocytes and of clinical interest because of their statistical association with melanoma. We report a technique that allows reliable cultivation of nevus cells from small acquired and congenital nevi and permits in vitro characterization of this cell type. Morphologically, cultured nevus cells were found to closely resemble epidermal melanocytes from the same or comparably aged donors, manifesting marked dendricity and specific ultrastructural features characteristic of melanocytes; but could be distinguished by the presence of occasional large binucleate or trinucleate cells and by the frequent finding of grouped melanosomes in nevus cell cytoplasm. Growth kinetics were also similar for nevus cells and epidermal melanocytes, with population doubling times of 1-2 weeks in hormone-supplemented serum-free medium, and substantial growth enhancement by fetal bovine serum. As previously noted for epidermal melanocytes, nevus cells in serum-free culture demonstrated striking substrate responsiveness, with far greater attachment rates and degree of cytoplasmic spreading on fibronectin or type I/III collagen than on laminin, type IV collagen, or uncoated plastic. These strong similarities in vitro suggest that morphologic and behavioral differences observed between epidermal melanocytes and nevus cells in the skin may result from local environmental influences rather than from intrinsic cellular differences. The availability of a satisfactory culture system for nevus cells may facilitate future investigations into their malignant potential and other biologic features.