The localization of talin and vinculin in chicken embryo fibroblasts (CEF) during transformation was studied by immunoelectron microscopy. CEF cells were infected with a temperature-sensitive mutant of Rous sarcoma virus. After 16 h at 42 degrees C, transformation was induced by incubation at 37 degrees C for different intervals up to 3 h. Cells were cleaved by "wet cleaving" as reported previously by us (R. Brands and C.A. Feltkamp, 1988, Exp. Cell Res. 176, 309) and labeled with affinity-purified polyclonal antibodies to talin or vinculin, or monoclonal anti-vinculin. We observed a rapid reduction of vinculin in adhesion plaques within 15 min and a much slower dissociation of talin. This was found using single-labeling procedures and also within the same cell using double labeling. Seemingly intact microfilament bundles were observed associated with adhesion plaques that contained relatively little vinculin. These observations show that an early event in src-induced transformation is the release of vinculin from adhesion plaques. Furthermore, since adhesion plaques with attached filament bundles can exist at least transiently with very little or no vinculin present, it seems likely that vinculin is not, or not the only protein, linking actin filaments to adhesion plaques.