Invasion of epithelial cells by Shigella is an early step in their pathogenesis. Adherence is generally presumed to be a prerequisite for invasion. This study examined the possibility of intestinal mucins serving as initial binding sites for clinical isolates of S. boydii and S. sonnei. The interactions of Shigella with rat and human small intestinal and colonic mucin were investigated. In solid phase binding assays, [35S] labelled Shigella did not show any preferential binding to rat/human small intestinal mucin or to rat colonic mucin. On the other hand, Shigella bound specifically to human colonic mucin in a concentration-dependent manner. This specific binding to human colonic mucin was not by weak hydrophobic interactions and could not be attributed to the presence of contaminating glycolipids in the mucin preparation. The human colonic mucin receptor was sensitive to periodate treatment suggesting the involvement of the carbohydrate portion of the mucin. Reduction and alkylation of mucin enhanced adherence probably by exposing buried binding sites. The monosaccharides present in mucins were ineffective as hapten inhibitors as was the lectin wheat germ agglutinin suggesting that the mucin receptor is a more complex one. This study identifies, for the first time, the presence of a specific Shigella-binding site on the carbohydrate portion of human colonic mucin, which is not present in rat colonic mucin or in rat/human small intestinal mucin.