The expression of the vascular adhesion molecules ELAM-1 (endothelial leukocyte adhesion molecule 1) and VCAM-1 (vascular cell adhesion molecule 1) was evaluated in colonic mucosa of patients with inflammatory bowel disease and normal controls by immunocytochemistry. VCAM-1 was found to be constitutively expressed in lymphoid aggregates in normal colonic mucosa and was not significantly enhanced or altered in distribution in mucosa of patients with inflammatory bowel disease regardless of the activity of the inflammatory process. In contrast, ELAM-1 was not detected by these techniques in normal colonic mucosa (n = 11) or in colonic mucosa of patients with inflammatory bowel disease which was either uninvolved or quiescent (n = 30). However, high levels of ELAM-1 were consistently found on endothelial surfaces in association with active inflammation in affected areas of colonic mucosa in patients with either ulcerative colitis (n = 27) or Crohn's colitis (n = 9). In addition, ELAM-1 appeared to be present within neutrophils which had migrated into crypt abscesses in affected mucosa. Similar analysis was carried out in the cotton-top tamarin (CTT), a primate that experiences an idiopathic chronic diffuse colitis resembling human ulcerative colitis. Although anti-human VCAM-1 antibodies did not react with the CTT, anti-human ELAM-1 stained endothelial surfaces in mucosal biopsies from CTT with active colitis. No ELAM-1 was identified in mucosa of CTT in which colitis activity was quiescent. Thus ELAM-1 is expressed on colonic endothelial surfaces in association with inflammation and may play an important role in facilitating leukocyte migration into sites of active IBD involvement.