We have examined immunohistochemically the expression of adhesion molecules in the micro-environment of portal tracts and their relationship to the expression of the pyruvate dehydrogenase E2 complex (PDC-E2) and HLA-DR in liver biopsy specimens. Ten cases of primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) and 19 controls were examined, including four cases of extrahepatic biliary obstruction, six of chronic viral hepatitis, and nine normal livers. In PBC, the damaged small bile ducts demonstrated an increased expression of PDC-E2 and an aberrant expression of HLA-DR; about half of these damaged bile ducts also expressed intercellular adhesion molecules (ICAM)-1 and a few expressed vascular adhesion molecule (VCAM)-1. In addition, lymphocyte function-associated antigen (LFA)-1 and very late antigen (VLA)-4 were expressed on infiltrating lymphocytes around these bile ducts. In contrast, in control livers, these alterations in antigen expression on the bile ducts were either not observed or were only focal and weak, when present. These findings suggest that ICAM-1/LFA-1 and also VCAM-1/VLA-4 linkages between the damaged bile ducts and lymphocytes may facilitate antigen-specific reactions such as the presentation of antigens, possibly PDC-E2, to the periductal lymphocytes in PBC. ICAM-1, VCAM-1, and E-selectin were strongly expressed on the endothelial cells of some vessels in the portal tracts in PBC, suggesting the facilitation of the recruitment of lymphocytes around the bile ducts of PBC. VCAM-1, a member of the immunoglobulin superfamily, has not hitherto been reported on bile ducts.