Fibroblast growth factors (FGFs) require a polysaccharide cofactor, heparin or heparan sulfate (HS), for receptor binding and activation. To probe the molecular mechanism by which heparin or HS (heparin/HS) activates FGF, small nonsulfated oligosaccharides found within heparin/HS were assayed for activity. These synthetic and isomerically pure compounds can activate the FGF signaling pathway. The crystal structures of complexes between FGF and these heparin/HS oligosaccharides reveal several binding sites on FGF and constrain possible mechanisms by which heparin/HS can activate the FGF receptor. These studies establish a framework for the molecular design of compounds capable of modulating FGF activity.