The purpose of this study was to identify the major salivary components which interact with oral bacteria and to determine the mechanism(s) responsible for their binding to the bacterial surface. Strains of Streptococcus sanguis, Streptococcus mitis, Streptococcus mutans, and Actinomyces viscosus were incubated for 2 h in freshly collected human submandibular-sublingual saliva (HSMSL) or parotid saliva (HPS), and bound salivary components were eluted with 2% sodium dodecyl sulfate. By sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis and Western transfer, alpha-amylase (EC 18.104.22.168) was the prominent salivary component eluted from S. sanguis. Studies with 125I-labeled HSMSL or 125I-labeled HPS also demonstrated a component with an electrophoretic mobility identical to that of alpha-amylase which bound to S. sanguis. Purified alpha-amylase from human parotid saliva was radiolabeled and found to bind to strains of S. sanguis genotypes 1 and 3 and S. mitis genotype 2, but not to strains of other species of oral bacteria. Binding of [125I]alpha-amylase to streptococci was saturable, calcium independent, and inhibitable by excess unlabeled alpha-amylases from a variety of sources, but not by secretory immunoglobulin A and the proline-rich glycoprotein from HPS. Reduced and alkylated alpha-amylase lost enzymatic and bacterial binding activities. Binding was inhibited by incubation with maltotriose, maltooligosaccharides, limit dextrins, and starch.