Biofilm formation on a polymer surface which involves initial attachment and accumulation in multilayered cell clusters (intercellular adhesion) is proposed to be the major pathogenicity factor in Staphylococcus epidermidis foreign-body-associated infections. We have characterized two distinct classes of biofilm-negative Tn917 mutants in S. epidermidis affected in initial attachment (class A) or intercellular adhesion (class B). mut1 (class A mutant) lacks five surface-associated proteins with molecular masses of 120, 60, 52, 45 and 38 kDa and could be complemented by transformation with a 16.4 kb wild-type DNA fragment. The complemented mutant was able to attach to a polystyrene surface, to form a biofilm, and produced all of the proteins missing from mut1. Subcloning experiments revealed that the 60 kDa protein is sufficient for initial attachment. Immunofluorescence microscopy using an antiserum raised against the 60 kDa protein showed that this protein is located at the cell surface. DNA-sequence analysis of the complementing region revealed a single open reading frame which consists of 4005 nucleotides and encodes a deduced protein of 1335 amino acids with a predicted molecular mass of 148kDa. The amino acid sequence exhibits a high similarity (61% identical amino acids) to the atl gene product of Staphylococcus aureus, which represents the major autolysin; therefore the open reading frame was designated atlE. By analogy with the S. aureus autolysin, AtlE is composed of two bacteriolytically active domains, a 60 kDa amidase and a 52 kDa glucosaminidase domain, generated by proteolytic processing. The 120 kDa protein missing from mut1 presumably represents the unprocessed amidase and glucosaminidase domain after proteolytic cleavage of the signal- and propeptide. The 45 and 38kDa proteins are probably the degradation products of the 60 and 52 kDa proteins, respectively. Additionally, AtlE was found to exhibit vitronectin-binding activity, indicating that AtlE plays a role in binding of the cells not only to a naked polystyrene surface during early stages of adherence, but also to plasma protein-coated polymer surfaces during later stages of adherence. Our findings provide evidence for a new function of an autolysin (AtlE) in mediating the attachment of bacterial cells to a polymer surface, representing the prerequisite for biofilm formation.