Fetal bovine ligamentum nuchae fibroblasts maintained in culture synthesized soluble elastin but were unable to form the insoluble elastic fiber. Secreted elastin precursors accumulated in culture medium and were measured using a radioimmunoassay for elastin. When elastin production was examined in ligament tissue from fetal calves of various gestational ages, cells from tissue taken during the last trimester of development produced significantly more elastin than did cells from younger fetal tissue, with maximal elastin synthesis occurring shortly before birth. Soluble elastin was not detected in ligament cells plated at low density until proliferation began to be density inhibited and the cells became quiescent. Also, soluble elastin production per cell declined with increasing population doubling or with age in culture. Cells grown in the presence of 5% fetal calf serum produced approximately four times as much soluble elastin as cells grown in serum-free medium. The addition of dexamethasone (0.1 μM) and bleomycin (1 μg/ml) increased soluble elastin production by cultured cells 180% and 50%, respectively, whereas theophylline (5 μg/ml) depressed production 50% and antagonized stimulation by dexamethasone. Ascorbate (50 μg/ml), soybean trypsin inhibitor (1 mg/ml), insulin (100 μU/ml), and aminoacetonitrile (50 μg/ml) had no effect, but cycloheximide at 10-4 M completely inhibited soluble elastin production. In contrast to cells in culture, ligament tissue minces (ligament cells surrounded by in vivo extracellular matrix) efficiently incorporated soluble elastin precursors into insoluble, cross-linked elastin. In addition, soluble elastin production per cell (per microgram of DNA) was higher in tissue minces than elastin production by cells maintained on plastic. These results suggest a role for extracellular matrix in formation of the elastic fiber and in stabilizing elastin phenotypic expression by ligament fibroblasts. Fibroblasts from the bovine ligamentum nuchae present an excellent model for in vitro studies of elastin biosynthesis.