We wished to determine whether hyaluronan would affect the attachment of epithelial cells to extracellular matrix proteins. Multiwell tissue culture plates were coated with human plasma fibronectin, laminin, or collagen type IV (0.01-10.0 micrograms/ml). Single-cell suspensions of rabbit corneal epithelial cells were placed in the wells, and after 45 minutes incubation the cells adhering to the matrix proteins were stained and counted. Cells attached to all three types of proteins. Preincubation of the matrix proteins with hyaluronan (0.1-1.0 mg/ml) significantly increased the number of cells attached to the fibronectin matrix, but it did not increase the numbers of cells attached to laminin or collagen type IV. Hyaluronidase inhibited this stimulatory effect. Glycosaminoglcyans other than hyaluronan (chondroitin sulfate, keratan sulfate, or heparan sulfate) failed to increase the numbers of attached cells. Treatment of the fibronectin matrix with monoclonal antibodies against the cell-binding domain of fibronectin (FN12-8 or FN30-8, 0.03-0.3 mg/ml, for 1 hour), before or after hyaluronan treatment, significantly decreased the numbers of attached cells. Monoclonal antibody against the fibrin- and heparin-binding domain at the N-terminal (FN9-1), however, significantly decreased the number of attached cells only when this antibody treatment preceded the hyaluronan treatment. Preincubation of the cells with hyaluronan had no effect; preincubation with GRGDSP (1 mg/ml), a synthetic peptide that blocks the cell surface receptor for fibronectin, significantly decreased cell attachment whether the fibronectin matrix was treated with hyaluronan or not. Further studies demonstrated that monoclonal antibody against the fibrin- and heparin-binding domain at the N-terminal of plasma fibronectin prevented radiolabeled hyaluronan from binding to fibronectin; likewise, the isolated N-terminal fragment, coupled with Sepharose 4B, bound to hyaluronan in columns. We conclude that hyaluronan binds to a fibrin- and heparin-binding domain at the N-terminal of plasma fibronectin and facilitates the attachment of epithelial cells.