We investigated the relative distribution of acidic and basic FGF (aFGF and bFGF) in the nervous system of the rat, using a combination of biological, biochemical, immunochemical, and immunohistochemical methods that can differentiate unambiguously between aFGF and bFGF. We found that different regions of the nervous system contained varying levels of aFGF and bFGF. In the central nervous system, bFGF was present nearly exclusively in astrocytes. Most neurons did not contain detectable amounts of bFGF immunoreactivity, with the notable exception of pyramidal cells in hippocampal area CA2. Interestingly, bFGF immunoreactivity was localized to the nucleus of both CA2 neurons and astrocytes. Astrocytes in vitro were also found to express bFGF, whereas cortical neurons in culture did not contain detectable amounts of bFGF. Transection of the optic nerve led to an approximately twofold increase of bFGF in the distal stump, which is consistent with the observation that bFGF is expressed by astrocytes. Transection of rat and chicken sciatic nerve resulted in a rapid and complete disappearance of aFGF from the distal nerve stump, suggesting that aFGF is present in axons projecting through the sciatic nerve. We observed, in agreement with this notion, that cultured sensory neurons contain reasonably high levels of FGF-like bioactivity. Similar levels of activity were found in developing sciatic nerve, suggesting that neuronal aFGF might be involved in regulating the development of the peripheral nervous system.