Vascular endothelial cells derived from adult bovine aorta (ABAE) treated with factor Xa and calcium were found to activate prothrombin. In contrast, nonvascular cells (human foreskin fibroblasts, bovine corneal endothelial cells, or human fetal lung cells) had either no or very little effect on prothrombin activation. In the presence of 6 X 10(5) ABAE cells, 20 ng of factor Xa converted 90 micrograms of prothrombin into 80 units of thrombin after 45 min at 37 degrees C. Exogenous factor V was not required for prothrombin activation, but thrombin generation was enhanced 2- to 4-fold by the addition of factor V (500-2,500 ng/ml). Treatment of ABAE cells with anti-bovine factor V IgG markedly inhibited prothrombin activation by factor Xa and calcium. In cells grown in serum-free medium for 3 months, the amount of factor V activity was equivalent to that found in cells grown with serum, which suggests that these cells probably synthesize factor V. Sparse ABAE cells increased prothrombin activation by factor Xa 6-fold compared to activation in confluent cells. Although previous thrombin treatment of ABAE cells did not enhance prothrombin activation, addition of dansyl arginine-4-ethyl piperidine amide markedly inhibited activation of 125I-labeled prothrombin by factor Xa, indicating that thrombin formation is necessary for optimal prothrombin activation. These data indicate that aortic endothelium may provide a physiologically important surface for activation of prothrombin as well as a mechanism for optimal formation of clots at sites of vascular injury.