The interaction of streptavidin with various cell systems was studied using fluorescent derivatives of the protein. The native unprocessed form of streptavidin bound to cells at low levels and in a nonspecific manner. In contrast, both the truncated "core" streptavidin (the commercially available form) and the biotin-blocked unprocessed protein bound to cells in enhanced levels and in a specific, saturable manner. This suggests that the binding of biotin or cleavage of the terminal portion(s) of the native protein molecule causes conformational changes which lead to the exposure of sites which presumably interact with cell surface receptors. Peptide inhibition studies demonstrated that the majority of binding to cells appears to be dependent on RGD-like specificity, suggesting that the GRYDS sequence of the streptavidin molecule may exhibit such specificity. Indirect immunofluorescence assays revealed that the protein is associated mainly with the cell surface. Moreover, streptavidin was demonstrated to compete with specific monoclonal antibodies to the RGD-binding site on the GpIIbIIIa integrin of activated platelets, thus suggesting that streptavidin may facilitate binding to ubiquitous cell-surface adhesion receptors via RGD mimicry.