The time dependence of agglutination and cell-cell contact spreading in human erythrocytes exposed to wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) was characterized by light and electron microscopy. Cells (3 x 10(7)/mL) had a threshold lectin concentration in the range of 0.6-2.0 micrograms/mL for initial cell contact. Spreading was essentially completed within 60 and 2 min in undisturbed and gently agitated suspensions, respectively. The cells in large WGA agglutinates retained features of their initial disk form in contrast to the convex outlines of polycation or polyethylene glycol-induced agglutinates. Spreading of contact area was accompanied by development of a pattern of discrete contact regions separated by a distance of the order of 1 micron. Freeze fracture electron microscopy and studies with ferritin-labeled WGA showed no significant aggregation of intramembrane particles or specific lectin receptors under conditions when contact spreading occurred. It is argued that flow stress effects on cells in suspended agglutinates give rise to a situation where opposite membranes, at the leading edge of cell contact, are separated by a thin aqueous layer. When this intercellular water layer exceeds a critical length, it becomes unstable. The layer breaks up by surface wave development to form an array of intracellular water spaces. Formation of the aqueous spaces causes opposite membrane regions to move synchronously toward each other. Lectin molecules crosslink the wave crests to give spatially periodic contact points.