The effect on intraosseous bone formation of a single local injection of recombinant human basic fibroblast growth factor into the distal femur was examined in normal and ovariectomized rabbits. In normal rabbits, basic fibroblast growth factor increased bone mineral density around the injected site in a dose-dependent manner at 4 weeks, with significant effects at concentrations of 400 micrograms and greater. Doses of 400 and 1,600 micrograms of basic fibroblast growth factor increased bone mineral density by 8 and 9%, respectively, compared with the opposite control femur. Histological examination showed that basic fibroblast growth factor (400 micrograms) induced the proliferation or recruitment of undifferentiated mesenchymal cells around the existing trabeculae at 3 days after the injection. For the first 2 weeks, osteoid formation was strongly stimulated, and this was followed by mineral apposition for another 2 weeks, at which time the femurs were harvested. Consequently, basic fibroblast growth factor stimulated intraosseous bone formation at 4 weeks. We speculate that the direct action of basic fibroblast growth factor on bone formation may be to stimulate proliferation or recruitment of minimally differentiated mesenchymal cells and to initiate the cascade of events in later stages of bone formation. In ovariectomized rabbits, basic fibroblast growth factor (400 micrograms) also increased bone mineral density, histomorphometrical bone formation markers, and trabecular connectivity to levels similar to those in rabbits who had received sham operations.