The adherence of Treponema denticola to ligands on cell surfaces or in basement membranes of periodontal tissues might play an important role in its pathogenicity. A direct microscopic assay was used to examine the binding of T. denticola to fibronectin and other protein substrates adsorbed on plastic cover slips. All strains of T. denticola that were tested adhered to fibronectin but to different degrees. The strains which bound in high numbers frequently bound by their tips. Type strain ATCC 33520 bound to fibronectin in high numbers (149 +/- 11.3 bacteria per microscopic field), with 60% bound by the tips. Strain e' bound in high numbers (140 +/- 10.2) and had the highest percentage of tip binding (98%); strain e bound in lowest numbers (39 +/- 8.2) and had the lowest percentage of tip binding (15%). Laminin supported binding at a level similar to that of fibronectin, as did fibronectin fragments which contained the cell binding domain peptides, RGDS. Type IV collagen and non-RGDS peptides did not support binding. Binding to fibronectin and laminin was inhibited by the addition of antifibronectin and antilaminin antibodies. By lowering the incubation temperature from 37 to 4 degrees C, the number of cells that attached decreased by 60% and tip binding was reduced by 50%. Pretreatment of the cells with collagen did not affect binding, whereas fibronectin pretreatment enhanced binding by 50% and laminin pretreatment resulted in a decrease of 60%. T. denticola adheres by its tips to fibronectin-coated surfaces, which suggests that fibronectin-specific adhesins cluster at the tips.