We have used a panel of lectins and antibodies to describe the composition of complex carbohydrates associated with M cells in various regions of the intestinal tract of adult BALB/c mice. The fucose-specific lectin Ulex europaeus agglutinin type I (UEA I) is a marker of M cells in the small intestine and recognized M cells at an early stage of differentiation. Subpopulations of M cells in a single follicle-associated epithelium (FAE) could be distinguished by different fucose-specific probes. Certain lectins revealed that M cells have basal processes that extend into the underlying lymphoid tissue. Colonic and rectal M cells display glycosylation patterns distinct from M cells of Peyer's patches and are characterized by terminal galactose. UEA I selectively adhered to Peyer's patch M cells in mucosal explants and in ligated intestinal loops in vivo. The lectin was taken up into endocytic vesicles and transported to the intra-epithelial pocket and other domains of the basolateral membrane. Thus M cell-specific glycoconjugates could serve as "receptors" for targeting of lectin-antigen conjugates to the mucosal immune system.