Trypsin, thrombin, and peptide analogues of the new amino terminus of the proteolyzed thrombin receptor, SFLLRN and SFLLRNPNDKYEPF, stimulated embryonic fibroblasts cultured as 3-dimensional tissue-like aggregates to elaborate a fibronectin-rich extracellular matrix. Enzymatically inactive thrombin and the control peptide FLLRN failed to stimulate matrix production. The induction of cell proliferation correlated with production of the fibronectin matrix. The regions of active cell proliferation in the fibroblast aggregates co-localized with the matrix and peptide analogues of the RGD cell-adhesion site of fibronectin reversibly inhibited the accumulation of the fibronectin matrix and the stimulation of cell proliferation by SFLLRN. Two different preparations of the fibronectin matrix stimulated cell proliferation in aggregates cultured in growth factor-free medium. We suggest that the stimulation of matrix production is a necessary event for mitogenic signaling in mesenchymal tissue. The tight coupling between the matrigenic and mitogenic activities of growth factors was absent in monolayer cultures of chick embryonic fibroblasts since thrombin and trypsin induced proliferation of monolayer-cultured cells without inducing the production of a fibronectin matrix.