In normal pregnancy, the maternal immune system fails to reject the fetus or the placenta as an allogeneic graft. We hypothesize that specialized mechanisms of leukocyte recruitment might limit access of circulating maternal immune cells to the maternal/fetal interface. During the critical period of initial trophoblast invasion there is an elegantly orchestrated progression of leukocyte homing events in the decidua basalis, associated with highly regulated expression of vascular addressins and segregation of specialized leukocyte subsets into well-defined decidual microdomains. Neutrophils are limited to the region of necrosis associated with enzymatic digestion at the leading edge of the invading trophoblast, where an almost linear array of maternal blood vessels displays the neutrophil ligand E-selectin. Cells with the phenotype of monocytes but expressing alpha4beta7 integrin are localized in the blood vessels of the specialized "vascular zone", which display the unusual combination of P-selectin (partially associated with platelets) and the alpha4beta7 ligand mucosal vascular addressin-1 (MAdCAM-1). Granulated metrial gland cells (alpha4+beta7-, probably alpha4beta1+) constitute a well-defined cluster positioned in the central decidua basalis around venules prominently expressing the alpha4beta1 ligand VCAM-1 (but not MAdCAM-1). T and B lymphocytes are rare. Our results suggest that selective mechanisms for regulating leukocyte access, associated with microdomain specialization within the decidua basalis, may play a fundamental role in immune regulation during the invasive period of placental development.