The method of affinity coelectrophoresis was used to study the binding of nine representative glycosaminoglycan (GAG)-binding proteins, all thought to play roles in nervous system development, to GAGs and proteoglycans isolated from developing rat brain. Binding to heparin and non-neural heparan and chondroitin sulfates was also measured. All nine proteins-laminin-1, fibronectin, thrombospondin-1, NCAM, L1, protease nexin-1, urokinase plasminogen activator, thrombin, and fibroblast growth factor-2-bound brain heparan sulfate less strongly than heparin, but the degree of difference in affinity varied considerably. Protease nexin-1 bound brain heparan sulfate only 1.8-fold less tightly than heparin (Kdvalues of 35 vs. 20 nM, respectively), whereas NCAM and L1 bound heparin well (Kd approximately 140 nM) but failed to bind detectably to brain heparan sulfate (Kd>3 microM). Four proteins bound brain chondroitin sulfate, with affinities equal to or a few fold stronger than the same proteins displayed toward cartilage chondroitin sulfate. Overall, the highest affinities were observed with intact heparan sulfate proteoglycans: laminin-1's affinities for the proteoglycans cerebroglycan (glypican-2), glypican-1 and syndecan-3 were 300- to 1800-fold stronger than its affinity for brain heparan sulfate. In contrast, the affinities of fibroblast growth factor-2 for cerebroglycan and for brain heparan sulfate were similar. Interestingly, partial proteolysis of cerebroglycan resulted in a >400-fold loss of laminin affinity. These data support the views that (1) GAG-binding proteins can be differentially sensitive to variations in GAG structure, and (2) core proteins can have dramatic, ligand-specific influences on protein-proteoglycan interactions.