Schwann cells, the myelin-forming cells of the peripheral nervous system, are surrounded by a basement membrane. Whether cultured rat Schwann cells synthesize the basement membrane-specific components, laminin and collagen type IV, and whether these components influence the adhesion, morphology, and growth of these cells have been investigated. Both laminin and collagen type IV were detected in the cytoplasm of Schwann cells by immunofluorescence. After ascorbate treatment, laminin and collagen type IV were both found in an extracellular fibrillar matrix bound to the Schwann cell surface. Laminin was further localized on the Schwann cell surface by electron microscopy using gold immunolabeling. Anti-laminin IgG-labeled gold particles were scattered over the cell surface, and linear rows of particles and small aggregates were found along the cell edges and at points of contact with other cells. When added to the culture medium, laminin acted as a potent adhesion factor, stimulating Schwann cell adhesion as much as eightfold above control levels on type IV collagen. In the presence of laminin, the cells became stellate and by 24 hr had extended long, thin processes. Laminin also stimulated cell growth in a dose-dependent manner and anti-laminin IgG completely inhibited cell attachment and growth in the absence of exogenous laminin. Thus, cultured Schwann cells synthesize laminin and collagen type IV, two major components of basement membrane, and laminin may trigger Schwann cell differentiation in vivo during early stages of axon-Schwann cell interaction before myelination.