Human peritoneal mesothelial cells lie on a basement membrane-like material consisting of fibronectin (FN), type I collagen (CI), type III collagen (CIII) and laminin (LA). To understand how these extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins affect mesothelial cell behavior, we investigated their effect on the adhesion and proliferation of mesothelial cells. A modified methyltetrazolium dye method was used to assess cell number. The results showed that FN, CI, CIII and LA, all increased adhesion of mesothelial cells. The adhesive effect was blocked dose-dependently by a synthetic Arg-Gly-Asp-containing (RGD) peptide. When coated as a substratum (immobilized form), FN, CI, CIII and LA, all enhanced serum-stimulated and epidermal-growth-factor-stimulated cellular proliferation as compared with bovine-serum-albumin-blocked plastic surfaces. When added in a soluble form, all matrix proteins except FN inhibited serum-stimulated and epidermal-growth-factor-stimulated cellular proliferation at high concentrations (CI and CIII: 1-10 micrograms/ml, LA: 3-10 micrograms/ml). We conclude that peritoneal mesothelial cells possess an RGD-sensitive receptor and that the ECM can modulate adhesion and proliferation of peritoneal mesothelial cells. The growth-modulating effect depends on the form and concentration of the ECM proteins.