Some in vivo observations have suggested that growing or perturbed endothelium, such as that which occurs during angiogenesis, is more sensitive to the action of cytokines (TNF/cachectin, TNF, or IL-1) than normal quiescent endothelial cells. This led us to examine the responsiveness of endothelium to TNF as a function of the growth/motile state of the cell. TNF-induced modulation of endothelial cell surface coagulant function was half-maximal at a concentration of ~0.1 nM in subconfluent cultures, whereas 1-2 nM was required for the same effect in postconfluent cultures. Perturbation of endothelial cell shape/cytoskeleton was similarly more sensitive to TNF in subconfluent cultures. Consistent with these results, radioligand binding studies demonstrated high affinity TNF binding sites, K(d) ~0.1 nM on subconfluent cultures, whereas only lower affinity sites (K(d) ~1.8 nM) were detected on postconfluent cultures. The mechanisms underlying this change in the affinity of endothelium for TNF were studied in four settings. Crosslinking experiments with 125I-TNF and endothelium showed additional bands corresponding to M(r) ~66,000 and ~84,000 with subconfluent cultures that were not observed with postconfluent cultures. Experiments with X-irradiated endothelium, whose growth but not motility was blocked, indicated that proliferation was not required for induction of high affinity TNF sites. Postconfluent endothelium, triggered to enter the proliferative cycle by microtubule poisons, expressed high affinity TNF binding sites together with changes in cell shape/cytoskeleton well before their entry into S phase. Using wounded postconfluent monolayers, cells that migrated into the wound and those close to the wound edge displayed enhanced TNF binding and modulation of coagulant properties. These results suggest a model for targetting TNF action within the vasculature; regulation of high affinity endothelial cell binding sites can direct TNF to activated cells in particular parts of the vascular tree.