Non-enzymic glycosylation of basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF, FGF-2) has recently been demonstrated to decrease the mitogenic activity of intracellular bFGF. Loss of this bioactivity has been implicated in impaired wound healing and microangiopathies of diabetes mellitus. In addition to intracellular localization, bFGF is also widely distributed in the extracellular matrix, primarily bound to heparan sulphate proteoglycans (HSPGs). Nonetheless, it is not clear if non-enzymic glycosylation similarly inactivates matrix-bound bFGF. To investigate this, we measured the effect of non-enzymic glycosylation on bFGF bound to heparin, heparan sulphate and related compounds. Incubation of bFGF with the glycosylating agents glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate (G3P; 25 mM) or fructose (250 mM) resulted in loss of 90% and 40% of the mitogenic activity of bFGF respectively. Treatment with G3P and fructose also decreased the binding of bFGF to a heparin column. If heparin was added to bFGF prior to non-enzymic glycosylation, the mitogenic activity and heparin affinity of bFGF were nearly completely preserved. A similar protective effect was demonstrated by heparan sulphate, low-molecular-mass heparin and the polysaccharide dextran sulphate, but not by chondroitin sulphate. Whereas non-enzymic glycosylation of bFGF with G3P impaired its ability to stimulate c-myc mRNA expression in fibroblasts, no such impairment was noticeable when bFGF was glycosylated in the presence of heparin. Taken together, these results suggest that HSPG-bound bFGF is resistant to non-enzymic glycosylation-induced loss of activity. Therefore, alteration of this pool probably does not contribute to impaired wound healing seen in diabetes mellitus.