To identify Chlamydia trachomatis genes involved in attachment to host cells, a chlamydial genomic library was screened on the basis of binding characteristics by two methods. In the whole-cell screen, individual recombinant Escherichia coli clones were assayed for adherence to eukaryotic cells. In the membrane-binding screen, each recombinant colony of E. coli was treated with CHCl3 and assayed for binding to purified, 3-[(3-cholamidopropyl)-dimethyl-ammonio]-1-propanesulfonate (CHAPS)-solubilized, 35S-labeled eukaryotic membrane material. Initial screening with McCoy cells was refined by using HEC-1B cells, a human endometrial epithelial cell line, which discriminate among recombinants adhering to McCoy cells. Some recombinants demonstrate significantly greater adherence to HEC-1B cells than to McCoy cells and appear, by transmission electron microscopy, to associate with electron-dense areas of the epithelial cell plasma membrane, resembling coated pits. Recombinants positive by one or both screening methods were examined by Southern and Western (immunoblot) analyses, which revealed the presence of chlamydial sequences inserted in the plasmids and the expression of novel 18-, 28-, and approximately 82 kDa, and perhaps of 18 Maxicell analysis of selected recombinants confirmed that the proteins of 28 and approximately 82 kDa, and perhaps of 18 kDa, are plasmid encoded. Antiserum generated against the recombinant approximately 82-kDa protein reacted in Western analysis with a similar-sized protein from C. trachomatis serovar E elementary bodies (EB) and reticulate bodies, serovar L2 EB, and C. psittaci EB. E. coli JM109(pPBW58) contains a 6.7-kb plasmid insert which encodes proteins of all three sizes. Under a number of different conditions in the whole-cell attachment assay--i.e., at 4 degrees C, in Ca(2+)- and Mg(2+)-free medium, in the presence of trypsin or dextran sulfate, and with rabbit aortic endothelial cells--the binding specificity of JM109(pPBW58) parallels that of C. trachomatis EB. Finally, the adherence phenotype of E. coli JM109(pPBW58) correlates directly with the presence of the recombinant plasmid; the phenotype is lost concurrently with loss of the recombinant plasmid, and the into E. coli JM109. The role of the 18-, 28-, and approximately 82-kDa proteins in mediating attachment, whether they act in concert as a complex or individually, has yet to be determined.