The effect of substrate surface hydrophobicity on fibronectin (Fn) adsorption and endothelial cell adhesion strength was studied. Bovine aortic endothelial cells (BAEC) were plated for 2 h with and without preadsorbed Fn on slides coated with homopolymers and copolymers of hydrophilic polyhydroxyethylmethacrylate (polyHEMA) and hydrophobic polyethylmethacrylate (polyEMA). The polarity of the substrate was determined by Wilhelmy plate contact angle. The amount of adsorbed Fn was determined using 125I-labeled Fn. Attenuated total reflection Fourier transform infrared (ATR-FTIR) spectroscopy was used to detect gross conformational changes of adsorbed Fn on polyHEMA or polyEMA. BAEC were cultured in serum-free medium for 2 h and subjected to a brief exposure of laminar flow in a variable-height flow chamber that provided a range of shear stresses of 15-185 dynes/cm2. The critical shear stress to detach 50% of the cells increased with increasing EMA content to a maximum at 20% HEMA/80% EMA copolymer irrespective of the presence of preadsorbed Fn. However, the critical force increased even though there were similar amounts of Fn adsorbed on all substrates. ATR-FTIR spectroscopy showed only minor changes in beta-sheet structure of Fn adsorbed to polyHEMA and polyEMA. These results show that the force to detach cells did not increase solely with increasing amounts of adsorbed Fn; rather, these results indicate a more complex interplay involving both the amount and conformation of adsorbed Fn.