Fibronectin and certain polypeptide regions of this adhesive glycoprotein mediate cell attachment and spreading on various substrates. We explored the theoretical prediction that this adhesive protein could become a competitive inhibitor of fibronectin-mediated processes if present in solution at appropriately high concentrations. Fibronectin function was inhibited by purified plasma fibronectin at 5-10 mg/ml, by a 75,000-dalton cell-interaction fragment of the protein at 0.5-1 mg/ml, and even by two synthetic peptides containing a conserved, hydrophilic amino acid sequence at 0.1-0.5 mg/ml. Inhibition of fibronectin-dependent cell spreading was dose dependent, noncytotoxic, and reversible. It was competitive in nature, since increased quantities of substrate-adsorbed fibronectin or longer incubation periods decreased the inhibition. A peptide inhibitory for fibronectin-mediated cell spreading also inhibited fibronectin-mediated attachment of cells to type I collagen, but it did not affect concanavalin A-mediated spreading. These results demonstrate the potential of a cell adhesion molecule and its biologically active peptide fragments to act as competitive inhibitors, and they suggest that fibronectin may act by binding to a saturable cell surface receptor.

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