The cell surface receptor for fibronectin is a heterodimeric membrane protein that recognizes an Arg-Gly-Asp sequence in fibronectin and that requires cations such as Mg2+ or Ca2+ for binding to fibronectin. The divalent cation requirements of this receptor were analyzed by measuring attachment of receptor liposomes to ligand-coated surfaces in the presence of different cations. The most striking effect observed was produced by Mn2+, which increased the binding of the receptor liposomes to fibronectin 2-3-fold over their binding in buffers containing Ca2+ and Mg2+. The binding activities of two related adhesion receptors, the vitronectin receptor and platelet GP IIb-IIIa, were supported but not enhanced by Mn2+. Two observations suggest that Mn2+ can compete with Ca2+ for the same cation-binding sites of the receptor. First, Mn2+ could still enhance fibronectin receptor binding activity even in the presence of 10-fold higher concentrations of Ca2+ or Mg2+. Second, Mn2+ inhibited the binding of radioactive Ca2+ to the alpha subunit of the receptor. The increased fibronectin receptor activity in the presence of Mn2+ appeared to be due to an increase in the affinity of the receptor for the Arg-Gly-Asp sequence because a 110-kDa cell attachment fragment and a synthetic hexapeptide containing the Arg-Gly-Asp sequence inhibited liposome binding more effectively in the presence of Mn2+ than in the presence of Ca2+/Mg2+. The affinity for the peptide was affected more than the affinity for the fragment, indicating that Mn2+ also induces a change in receptor specificity. Increased receptor binding in the presence of Mn2+ was also apparent in affinity chromatography of the fibronectin receptor on the 110-kDa fibronectin fragment; Mn2+ improved the yield of the receptor 4-fold. Mn2+ similarly increased the number of receptor-fibronectin complexes in preparations analyzed by electron microscopy. These results show that exogenous influences can modulate the affinity and specificity with which the fibronectin receptor binds to its ligands.