A centrifugal force-based adhesion assay has been used to quantitatively examine the kinetics of formation of cell-cell contacts mediated specifically by expression of E-cadherin under the control of a glucocorticoid-inducible promoter in mouse fibroblasts. Analysis of cells expressing maximal or minimal levels of E-cadherin showed that the strength of E-cadherin-mediated adhesion developed in a single exponential step over a short time (half-maximal adhesion, 13-17 min). At 37 degrees C, adhesion strength increased rapidly in the first 20 min without an apparent lag phase. After 90 min, adhesion strength reached a plateau. Differences in final strengths of adhesion were commensurate with the level of E-cadherin expression. Strengthening of adhesion was temperature dependent. At 19 degrees C, strengthening of adhesion was delayed and subsequently developed with a slower rate compared to adhesion at 37 degrees C. At 4 degrees C, adhesion was completely inhibited. Strengthening of adhesion was absolutely dependent on a functional actin cytoskeleton since adhesion did not develop when cells were treated with cytochalasin D. Together, our current and previous (McNeill et al., 1993.J. Cell Biol. 120:1217-1226) studies indicate that the rate of initial strengthening of E-cadherin-mediated adhesion is neither dependent on the amount of E-cadherin expressed nor on long-range protein diffusion in the membrane to the adhesion site. However, initial strengthening of adhesion is dependent on temperature-sensitive cellular activities that may locally couple clusters of E-cadherin to the actin cytoskeleton.