Constitutive, stable intercellular adhesion is one of the distinguishing properties of metazoans, of which the sponges (Phylum Porifera) are the most primitive representatives. In sponges, intercellular adhesion is mediated by the large proteoglycan-like cell agglutinating molecule 'aggregation factor', which binds to cell surfaces via an oligosaccharide moiety. Previous studies indicated that this aggregation factor binds to two proteins associated with the surface of sponge cells. One of these, a 68 kDa peripheral membrane protein, was isolated by affinity chromatography on aggregation factor conjugated to Sepharose. This monomeric 68 kDa glycoprotein plays a key role in sponge cell adhesion since it potently inhibits the binding of aggregation factor to cell surfaces and completely prevents aggregation factor-mediated cell adhesion. The 68 kDa aggregation factor ligand binds with high affinity to both aggregation factor (KD = 2 x 10(-9) M) and cell surfaces (KD = 6 x 10(-8) M) providing evidence that it serves as an intramolecular bridge between the aggregation factor molecule and a cell surface receptor. Therefore, this early metazoan protein may represent one of the earliest extracellular matrix adhesion proteins to have arisen in the course of metazoan evolution.