Adherence of Actinobacillus actinomycetemcomitans to hard-tissue surfaces was evaluated by comparing a phenotypically stable, well-maintained clinical isolate (strain CU1000) to Streptococcus gordonii G9B, an extensively studied oral-colonizing bacterium. Standard innocula of radiolabelled bacteria were added to saliva-coated hydroxyapatite (SHA) and the ratio of bound to unbound cells counted. Several other clinical isolates as well as laboratory strain Y4 were studied. In other experiments, cell detachment from SHA was compared in static and shaking vessels to calculate controlled desorption of cells over time. A sonic-displacement assay was used to measure avidity of binding to HA and SHA. To better define the attachment properties of CU1000, bacteria were treated with a variety of agents including detergents, salts and enzymes before or after incubation with SHA. Results indicated that CU1000 bound better than G9B (a minimum of 10-fold greater; p < or = 0.05) and did not desorb from SHA, while G9B desorbed to equilibrium in 4 h. Furthermore, Langmuir isotherm calculations indicated that, unlike G9B, CU1000 did not follow second-order adsorption kinetics and thus did not achieve saturation. In addition, of the agents tested only periodate reduced attachment and resulted in detachment of CU1000 from surfaces. These experiments suggest that clinical isolates of A. actinomycetemcomitans possess unique binding properties that promote adsorption to and impede desorption from SHA. The characteristics described for the actinobacillus in this study have been previously underestimated, appear to be mediated by glycoconjugates, and may resemble attachment described for several biofilm-forming, non-oral pathogens.