Heparin-binding growth factor-2 (HBGF-2; also known as basic fibroblast growth factor) is mitogenic for most anchorage-dependent cells. It is shown here that HBGF-2 stimulates cell-substratum adhesion and neurite extension in the sympathetic nerve cell line PC12. When HBGF-2 is adsorbed to artificial extracellular matrices consisting of heparin or chondroitin sulfate, it causes the formation of cellular aggregates or circles of cells, respectively. HBGF-2 is also a nerve cell survival molecule, for it potentiates the survival of primary cultures of embryonic chick ciliary ganglion cells but not of embryonic neural retina cells. Finally, a series of synthetic peptides from the HBGF-2 sequence is described that selectively alter the biological effects of HBGF-2. The amphiphilic nature of one of these peptides is discussed with respect to its ability to stimulate cell adhesion.