Putative docking of secretory vesicles comprising recognition of and attachment to future fusion sites in the plasma membrane has been investigated in chromaffin cells of the bovine adrenal medulla and in rat phaeochromocytoma (PC 12) cells. Upon permeabilization with digitonin, secretion can be stimulated in both cell types by increasing the free Ca2+-concentration to microM levels. Secretory activity can be elicited up to 1 hr after starting permeabilization and despite the loss of soluble cytoplasmic components indicating a stable attachment of granules to the plasma membrane awaiting the trigger for fusion. Docked granules can be observed in the electron microscope in permeabilized PC 12 cells which contain a large proportion of their granules aligned underneath the plasma membrane. The population of putatively docked granules in chromaffin cells cannot be as readily discerned due to the dispersal of granules throughout the cytoplasm. Further experiments comparing PC 12 and chromaffin cells suggest that active docking but not transport of granules can still be performed by permeabilized cells in the presence of Ca2+: a short (2 min) pulse of Ca2+ in PC 12 cells leads to the secretion of almost all releasable hormone over a 15 min observation period whereas, in chromaffin cells, with only a small proportion of granules docked, withdrawal of Ca2+ leads to an immediate halt in secretion. Transport of chromaffin granules from the Golgi to the plasma membrane docking sites seems to depend on a mechanism sensitive to permeabilization. This is shown by the difference in the amount of hormone released from the two permeabilized cell types, reflecting the contrast in the proportion of granules docked to the plasma membrane in PC 12 or chromaffin cells. Neither docking nor the docked state are influenced by cytochalasin B or colchicine. The permeabilized cell system is a valuable technique for the in vitro study of interaction between secretory vesicles and their target membrane.