The rat cell line 804G assembles an extracellular matrix which induces not only the rapid adhesion and spreading of epithelial cells but also the assembly of a cell-matrix attachment device called the hemidesmosome. The major component of this matrix is laminin-5. We have purified rat laminin-5 from medium conditioned by 804G cells. Epithelial cells which are co-incubated with medium supplemented with soluble laminin-5 adhere and spread rapidly. Furthermore, human carcinoma cells undergo a dramatic morphologic change in the presence of laminin-5 and form orderly arrays resembling epithelial sheets. Soluble rat laminin-5 is selectively incorporated into an insoluble matrix of epithelial cells in vitro, since rat-specific laminin-5 antibodies stain cell-substrate contacts. Addition of medium containing soluble laminin-5 to explanted, human corneal rims induces assembly of hemidesmosomes, important cell-matrix attachment devices. Furthermore, rat-specific laminin-5 antibodies stain areas of contact between corneal epithelium and basement membrane, indicating that rat laminin-5 from the medium is incorporated into basement membrane. We discuss the use of laminin-5 as a medium supplement for the culture of both epithelial cells and epithelial tissue explants.