Abstract The process of cell-substratum adhesion of BALB/c 3T3 fibroblasts on fibronectin (FN)-coated substrata was compared with that of cells adhering to substrata coated with the heparan sulfate (HS)-binding protein, platelet factor four (PF4). FN has binding domains for HS and an unidentified cell surface receptor, whereas PF4 binds to only HS on the surface of the cell. The attachment and early spreading sequences of cells on either substratum were similar as shown by scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Within 2 h of spreading, cells on FN developed typical fibroblastic morphologies, whereas those on PF4 lacked polygonal orientations and formed numerous broadly spread lamellae. Interference reflection microscopic analysis indicated that PF4-adherent cells formed only close adhesive contacts, whereas FN-adherent cells formed both close contacts and tight focal contacts. Cells on either substratum responded to Ca 2+ chelation with EGTA by rounding up, but remained adherent to the substratum by relatively EGTA-resistant regions of the cell's undersurface, demonstrating that cell surface HS by binding to an appropriate substratum is capable of initiating a Ca 2+-dependent spreading response. The EGTA-resistant substratum-attached material on PF4 was morphologically similar to that on FN, the latter of which was derived from both tight focal contacts and discrete specializations within certain close contacts. These studies show that heparan sulfate proteoglycans on the surface of these cells can participate in the formation of close contact adhesions by binding to an appropriate substratum and suggest that sub-specializations within close contact adhesions may evolve into tight focal contacts by the participation of an unidentified cell surface receptor which binds specifically to fibronectin but not to PF4. In addition, the functional role of FN in tight focal contact formation is demonstrated.