Chemokines selectively recruit and activate a variety of cells during inflammation. Interactions between cell surface glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) and chemokines drive the formation of haptotactic or immobilized gradients of chemokines at the site of inflammation, directing this recruitment. Chemokines bind to glycosaminoglycans on human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVECs) with affinities in the micromolar range: RANTES > MCP-1 > IL-8 > MIP-1alpha. This binding can be competed with by soluble glycosaminoglycans: heparin, heparin sulfate, chondroitin sulfate, and dermatan sulfate. RANTES binding showed the widest discrimination between glycosaminoglycans (700-fold), whereas MIP-1alpha was the least selective. Almost identical results were obtained in an assay using heparin sulfate beads as the source of immobilized glycosaminoglycan. The binding of chemokines to glycosaminoglycan fragments has a strong length dependence, and optimally requires both N- and O-sulfation. Isothermal titration calorimetry data confirm these results; IL-8 binds heparin fragments with a K(d) of 0.39-2.63 microM, and requires five saccharide units to bind each monomer of chemokine. In membranes from cells expressing the G-protein-coupled chemokine receptors CXCR1, CXCR2, and CCR1, soluble GAGs inhibit the binding of chemokine ligands to their receptors. Consistent with this, heparin and heparin sulfate could inhibit IL-8-induced neutrophil calcium flux. Chemokines can therefore form complexes with both cell surface and soluble GAGs; these interactions have different functions. Soluble GAG chemokines complexes are unable to bind the receptor, resulting in a block of the biological activity. Previously, we have shown that cell surface GAGs present chemokines to the G-protein-coupled receptors, by increasing the local concentration of protein. A model is presented which brings together all of these data. The selectivity in the chemokine-GAG interaction suggests selective disruption of the haptotactic gradient may be an achievable therapeutic approach in inflammatory disease.