An experimental model of proliferative glomerulonephritis induced by antibodies against the Thy-1 antigen has been established and used to study the pathological sequence from mesangiolysis to mesangial proliferation. However, the functional role of the Thy-1 molecule distributed on rat glomerular mesangial cells remains unknown, so the present study was undertaken to determine the precise subcellular localization of Thy-1 molecules in vitro using two anti-Thy-1 monoclonal antibodies, 1-22-3 and OX-7. Immunofluorescence and immunoelectron microscopic studies in combination with laser scanning analysis showed that the localization of 1-22-3 and OX-7 bound to cultured rat mesangial cells differed, particularly when cocultured with vascular endothelial cells. An epitope recognized by 1-22-3 was concentrated specifically on the mesangial cell surfaces facing the neighboring endothelial cells. In contrast, OX-7 bound to mesangial cell surfaces and extracellular parts in a diffuse pattern independent of contact with endothelial cells. This finding is consistent with our previous ultrastructural study in which the reactivity of 1-22-3 with normal kidney tissue was limited to mesangial cell surfaces facing endothelial cells. These results led us to conclude that the specific Thy-1 molecular epitope recognized by 1-22-3 is associated with points anchoring mesangial and endothelial cells, where this anti-Thy-1 antibody binds after injection in vivo, resulting in mesangial cell detachment from the vascular capillary wall, mesangiolysis and mesangial cell dysfunction. We believe that the critical epitope detected by 1-22-3 in this study plays an important role in mesangial cell function and injury.