Cellular adhesion is mediated by distinct cell surface receptors (adhesion molecules) and plays a pivotal role in the biological processes of morphogenesis, cell migration and cell-cell communication. During the past decade many adhesion molecules have been identified and structurally analysed. This has allowed an understanding of their role in the pathophysiology of disease, including inflammation and sepsis, ischaemia and reperfusion, transplant rejection, atherosclerosis and thrombosis, angiogenesis and wound healing, as well as carcinogenesis and tumour metastasis. Understanding of the molecular mechanisms of cellular communication is not only vital for advances in surgical pathophysiology, it also has the potential to widen the spectrum of diagnosis and therapy of disease. Analysis of expression of individual surface molecules may help in the diagnosis of transplant rejection and allow a prognostic determination of tumour progression and metastasis formation. Moreover, manipulation of adhesion molecule function by monoclonal antibodies, antisense oligonucleotides or single gene products may open the door for novel therapeutic regimens to prevent transplant rejection and ischaemia-, sepsis- and shock-induced tissue injury.