The binding properties of a strain of Propionibacterium granulosum derived from human skin was investigated with reference to glycosphingolipids separated on thin layer chromatograms or coated in microtiter wells using externally (125I) and metabolically [( 35S]methionine) labeled bacteria. Binding was found to lactosylceramide (LacCer; Gal beta 1-4Glc beta 1-Cer) but not to glycolipids lacking the lactose sequence (i.e. Glc beta 1-Cer, Gal beta 1-Cer or Gal alpha 1-4Gal beta 1-Cer). In microtiter wells, binding occurred at 50 ng and became half-maximal at the theoretical value for a monomolecular layer of LacCer (i.e. 100-200 ng/well). The bacteria also bound to glycolipids with various substitutions (e.g. GalNAc beta 1-4, Gal beta 1-3GalNAc beta 1-4, Fuc alpha 1-2Gal beta 1-3GalNAc beta 1-4, Gal alpha 1-3, GlcNAc beta 1-3, Gal beta 1-3GlcNAc beta 1-3, Gal beta 1-4GlcNAc beta 1-3, and Gal beta 1-3(Fuc alpha 1-4)GlcNAc beta 1-3) at the Gal of LacCer, although only those species with GalNAc beta 1-4 or Gal beta 1-3GalNAc beta 1-4 were as active as LacCer itself. Glycolipids with other additions (e.g. Gal alpha 1-4 and NeuAc alpha 2-3) were negative. For unsubstituted LacCer, the binding required either a trihydroxy base or 2-hydroxy fatty acid, specifying the epithelial type of ceramide; LacCer composed of a dihydroxy base and nonhydroxy fatty acid was negative. This is interpreted as indicating that the proper presentation of the binding epitope depends on the ceramide structure. The relevance of this to biological membranes has not yet been established. Neither free lactose (up to 20 mg/ml) nor lactose-bovine serum albumin (5 mg/ml) prevented the binding of bacteria to LacCer, two facts that support the solid-phase binding data demonstrating a low affinity binding and the crucial importance of a particular lactose epitope.