Development of the human embryo depends on the ability of first trimester cytotrophoblastic stem cells to differentiate and invade the uterus. In this process, transient expression of an invasive phenotype is part of normal cytotrophoblast differentiation. Morphologically, this process begins when polarized chorionic villus cytotrophoblasts form multilayered columns of nonpolarized cells, and invade the uterus. Using immunocytochemistry, we compared the presence of adhesion receptors and extracellular matrix ligands on cytotrophoblasts in villi, cell columns, and the uterine wall. Villus cytotrophoblasts, anchored to basement membrane, stained for alpha 6 and beta 4 integrin subunits and both merosin and A-chain-containing laminin. Nonpolarized cytotrophoblasts in columns expressed primarily alpha 5 and beta 1 integrin subunits and a fibronectin-rich matrix. Cytotrophoblast clusters in the uterine wall stained for alpha 1, alpha 5, and beta 1 integrins, but not for most extracellular matrix antigens, suggesting that they interact primarily with maternal cells and matrices. Tenascin staining was restricted to stroma at sites of transition in cytotrophoblast morphology, suggesting that tenascin influences cytotrophoblast differentiation. Our results suggest that regulation of adhesion molecule expression contributes to acquisition of an invasive phenotype by cytotrophoblasts and provide a foundation for studying pathological conditions in which insufficient or excessive trophoblast invasion occurs, such as preeclampsia or choriocarcinoma.