Mechanisms of cell interaction with fibronectin have been studied with proteolytic fibronectin fragments that have well-defined ligand binding properties. Results of a previous study (Rogers, S.L., J.B. McCarthy, S.L. Palm, L.T. Furcht, and P.C. Letourneau, 1985, J. Neurosci., 5:369-378) demonstrated that (a) central (CNS) and peripheral (PNS) nervous system neurons adhere to, and extend neurites on a 33-kD carboxyl terminal fibronectin fragment that also binds heparin, and (b) neurons from PNS, but not the CNS, have stable interactions with a 75-kD cell-binding fragment and with intact fibronectin. In the present study domain-specific reagents were used in inhibition assays to further differentiate cell surface interactions with the two fibronectin domains, and to define the significance of these domains to cell interactions with the intact fibronectin molecule. These reagents are (a) a soluble synthetic tetrapeptide Arg-Gly-Asp-Ser (RGDS; Pierschbacher, M.D., and E. Ruoslahti, 1984, Nature (Lond.), 309:30-33) representing a cell-binding determinant in the 75-kD fragment, and (b) an antibody raised against the 33-kD fragment that binds specifically to that fragment. Initial cell attachment to, and neurite extension upon, fibronectin and the two different fragments was evaluated in the presence and absence of the two reagents. Attachment of both PNS and CNS cells to intact fibronectin was reduced in the presence of RGDS, the former more so than the latter. In contrast, the antibody to the 33-kD fragment did not affect attachment of PNS cells to fibronectin, but significantly decreased attachment of CNS cells to the molecule. RGDS inhibited attachment of both cell types to the 75-kD fragment to a greater degree than it did attachment to the intact molecule. Cell interaction with the 33-kD fragment was not affected by RGDS. Reduction of neurite lengths (determined after 24 h of culture) by the domain-specific reagents paralleled the reduction in initial adhesion to each substratum. Therefore, it appears that (a) both PNS and CNS cells have receptors for each cell-binding domain of fibronectin, (b) the receptor(s) for the two domains are distinct, with attachment to the 33-kD fragment being independent of RGDS, and (c) the relative importance of each domain to cell interaction with intact fibronectin is different for CNS and PNS cells.