Synthetic materials that promote the growth or differentiation of cells have advanced the fields of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Most functional biomaterials are based on a handful of peptide sequences derived from protein ligands for cell surface receptors. Because few proteins possess short peptide sequences that alone can engage cell surface receptors, the repertoire of receptors that can be targeted with this approach is limited. Materials that bind diverse classes of receptors, however, may be needed to guide cell growth and differentiation. To provide access to such new materials, we utilized phage display to identify novel peptides that bind to the surface of pluripotent cells. Using human embryonal carcinoma (EC) cells as bait, approximately 3 x 10(4) potential cell-binding phage clones were isolated. The pool was narrowed using an enzyme-linked immunoassay: 370 clones were tested, and seven cell-binding peptides were identified. Of these, six sequences possess EC cell-binding ability. Specifically, when displayed by self-assembled monolayers (SAMs) of alkanethiols on gold, they mediate cell adhesion. The corresponding soluble peptides block this adhesion, indicating that the identified peptide sequences are specific. They also are functional. Synthetic surfaces displaying phage-derived peptides support growth of undifferentiated human embryonic stem (ES) cells. When these cells were cultured on SAMs presenting the sequence TVKHRPDALHPQ or LTTAPKLPKVTR in a chemically defined medium (mTeSR), they expressed markers of pluripotency at levels similar to those of cells cultured on Matrigel. Our results indicate that this screening strategy is a productive avenue for the generation of materials that control the growth and differentiation of cells.