Glomerular epithelial cells (GEC) maintain glomerular permselectivity and are a target of immunological glomerular injury, which may lead to proliferation or detachment from extracellular matrix (ECM). We studied adhesion mechanisms in rat GEC in culture, focusing on adhesion molecules of the beta 1 integrin family. At early time points (1 hr after plating of cells into culture wells that had been pre-incubated with purified ECM proteins), adhesion of GEC to collagen I, collagen IV, laminin, and fibronectin was inhibited with anti-beta 1 integrin antibody. The peptide RGDS inhibited adhesion to fibronectin and laminin. Immunoprecipitation studies demonstrated the presence of alpha 2, alpha 3, and beta 1 integrins; the alpha 1, alpha 4, alpha 5, alpha 6, alpha v, and beta 3 subunits were undetectable. Adhesion to all ECM proteins was dependent on divalent cations, but the effects of individual cations varied among substrata. In rat GEC, alpha 2 beta 1 and/or alpha 3 beta 1 integrins appear to mediate adhesion to collagen I, collagen IV, and laminin. The alpha 3 beta 1 integrin is also the likely receptor for fibronectin, interacting through an RGD binding site. Furthermore, single integrins or combinations of integrins appear to have distinct ligand-binding functions that are differentially regulated by divalent cations. Characterization of GEC adhesion molecules may facilitate the understanding of mechanisms of glomerular development, and cell detachment or proliferation in immune glomerular injury.