Abstract Physico-chemical and topographical cues allow to control the behavior of adherent cells. Towards this goal, commercially available cell culture carriers can be finished with a laterally microstructured biomolecular functionalization. As shown in a previous study [Biomacromolecules 4 (2003) 1072], the anhydride moiety facilitates a simple and versatile way to protein binding. The present work addresses the technical issue of anhydride surface functionalization of polystyrene, the most common material for cell culture ware. Different approaches based on low pressure plasma, electron beam and ultraviolet light techniques (i.e. maleic anhydride plasma reactions; plasma, electron beam and UV immobilization of functional polymer thin films; grafting of functional polymers to plasma activated surfaces) are introduced and briefly illustrated with examples. Results are characterized by Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) and ellipsometry. The different routes are compared in terms of technical feasibility and achievable surface properties.