The abilities of 14 strains of aerobic gram-positive cocci and gram-negative bacilli to adhere in vitro to human or canine aortic valve leaflets were compared. 2-mm sections of excised valve leaflets were obtained by punch biopsy and were incubated under standardized conditions in suspensions of bacteria. Valve sections were subsequently washed and homogenized, and quantitative techniques were used to determine the proportions of bacteria from the initial suspensions that had adhered to the valve sections. Comparable results were obtained when these adherence ratios were determined by two independent methods based either on measurements of bacterial viability or of radioactivity in 51Cr-labeled bacteria. For each bacterial strain, the adherence ratio was constant over a wide range of concentrations of bacteria in the incubation medium. Strains of enterococci, viridans streptococci, coagulase-positive and coagulase-negative staphylococci and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (adherence ratios 0.003-0.017) were found to adhere more readily to valve sections than strains of Escherichia coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae (adherence ratios 0.00002-0.00004). The organisms that most frequently cause bacterial endocarditis were found to adhere best to heart valves in vitro, suggesting that the ability to adhere to valvular endothelium may be an important or essential charcteristic of bacteria that cause endocarditis in man.