Human intestinal intraepithelial lymphocytes (IEL), predominantly CD8+ T lymphocytes, are uniquely situated at the basolateral surfaces of epithelial cells in contact with the myofibroblasts that comprise the basement membrane. Since mesenchymal cells may anchor IEL in this location and may also serve as antigen-presenting cells, the mechanism of binding to IEL was investigated. Lymphocytes were radiolabeled with [51Cr] sodium chromate, cocultured with mesenchymal cell monolayers, and the nonadherent lymphocytes removed by washes. Those adherent to the monolayers were counted by measuring the amount of radiolabel retained in the well. A large fraction of IL-2-activated IEL bound to KD (lip fibroblast), HISM (jejunal smooth muscle), and JF (jejunal fibroblast) cell lines after a 2-hr incubation: 33 +/- 11, 37 +/-14, and 48 +/- 15%, respectively. When monoclonal antibodies directed at the alpha chains of the very late activation antigens (CD49) were added alone or combined with anti CD11a to assays measuring IEL binding to KD or JF monolayers, the greatest inhibition (33 to 38%) occurred with anti-alpha 4 combined with anti-CD11a. The majority of IEL expressed alpha 1 and alpha 4 before and after a 3-day culture with IL-2, with no change in surface density. VCAM-1, a binding partner to alpha 4, was not expressed on KD or JF cells, and anti-VCAM antibody had no effect on binding. In summary, alpha 4 and CD11a on IEL mediate binding to mesenchymal cells.