Haemagglutinin (HA) activity of Clostridium botulinum type A 19S and 16S toxins (HA-positive progenitor toxin; HA(+)-PTX) was characterized. HA titres against human erythrocytes of HA(+)-PTX were inhibited by the addition of lactose, D-galactose, N-acetyl-D-galactosamine and D-fucose to the reaction mixtures. A direct glycolipid binding test demonstrated that type A HA(+)-PTX strongly bound to paragloboside and some neutral glycolipids, but did not bind to gangliosides. Type A HA(+)-PTX also bound to asialoglycoproteins (asialofetuin, neuraminidase-treated transferrin), but not to sialoglycoproteins (fetuin, transferrin). Although glycopeptidase F treatment of asialofetuin abolished the binding of HA(+)-PTX, endo-alpha-N-acetylgalactosaminidase treatment did not. Thus these results can be interpreted as indicating that type A HA(+)-PTX detects and binds to Gal beta 1-4GlcNAc in paragloboside and the N-linked oligosaccharides of glycoproteins. Regardless of neuraminidase treatment, type A HA(+)-PTX bound to glycophorin A which is a major sialoglycoprotein on the surface of erythrocytes. Both native glycophorin A and neuraminidase-treated glycophorin A inhibited the binding of erythrocytes to type A HA(+)-PTX. Since the N:-linked oligosaccharide of glycophorin A is di-branched and more than 50% of this sugar chain is monosialylated, type A HA(+)-PTX probably bound to the unsialylated branch of the N-linked oligosaccharide of glycophorin A and agglutinated erythrocytes. One subcomponent of HA, designated HA1, did not agglutinate native erythrocytes, although it did bind to erythrocytes, paragloboside and asialoglycoproteins in a manner quite similar to that of HA(+)-PTX. These results indicate that type A HA(+)-PTX binds to oligosaccharides through HA1.