Chemokines are 8-10 kDa proteins involved in the control of leukocyte trafficking and activation. In free solution, chemokines are monomers at physiologic concentrations, although many multimerize at higher concentrations. Cell surface heparan sulfate may sequester chemokines, increasing their local concentrations and facilitating their binding to receptors expressed on leukocytes. In competitive binding assays using immobilized heparin, a 2-3-fold increase in the bound radiolabeled chemokine was seen with increasing concentrations of unlabeled chemokine in the nanomolar range. Unlabeled chemokine concentrations between 0.25 and 50 microM were needed to compete the bound radioactivity. This biphasic competition curve was not seen for N-methyl-L25 IL-8, a variant of IL-8 which is unable to dimerize. In addition, complexes of chemokine and heparin eluted from gel filtration columns with apparent molecular masses of 33-60 kDa, suggesting that chemokine multimerization had occurred. The physiological relevance of this multimerization process was seen from studies using human endothelial cells. The endothelial cell binding sites for IL-8, RANTES, and MCP-1 were deduced to be glycosaminoglycans since competition assays showed the biphasic curves and micromolar IC50 values seen in studies with immobilized heparin, and mRNA for known chemokine receptors was not detected. Furthermore, digestion of endothelial cell monolayers with glycosaminidases decreased chemokine binding by up to 80%. Glycosaminoglycans can act as modulators of the ligand binding affinity of chemokine receptor-bearing cells. Removal of glycosaminoglycans from CHO cells expressing chemokine receptors CXCR1, CCR1, or CCR2 resulted in 40-70% decreases in the binding of RANTES, MCP-1, IL-8, and MIP-1alpha. Our data show that cell surface glycosaminoglycans induce polymerization of chemokines, increasing their local concentration and therefore enhancing their effects on high-affinity receptors within the local microenvironment.