Thrombospondin (TSP) is a homotrimeric extracellular glycoprotein with a subunit molecular mass of 140 kD. The subunits have a modular or domain-like structure and are held together by interchain disulphide bonds. A number of domains have been identified including those for the binding of collagen, fibrinogen, and heparin. Due to the trimeric form of the TSP molecule, the various domains are trivalent in nature and this contributes to the ability of TSP to mediate cell-substrate interactions. Indeed, TSP has recently been shown not only to promote cell adhesion but also to be intimately involved in cell growth and migration. The adhesive function of TSP is attributable to the "solid-phase" or matrix-bound form of the molecule. There is some evidence that the heparin-binding domain mediates incorporation of soluble TSP into the insoluble matrix form. The heparin-binding domain of TSP is a compact globular amino-terminal moiety that contains two clusters of basic amino acids and a single intrachain disulphide bond. To delineate the role of the heparin-binding domain in matrix assembly and to define further the precise region of interchain disulphide bonding that results in trimer formation, we have expressed deleted forms of the cDNA encoding TSP in SV-40-transformed. African green monkey kidney cells. The proteins synthesized from the various deleted TSP cDNAs were examined for (a) secretion into the culture medium and incorporation into the extracellular matrix; (b) binding to heparin-Sepharose; (c) immunoprecipitability by a conformation-specific monoclonal antibody; and (d) ability to form trimers. This analysis allowed us to draw the following conclusions. (a) A 218 amino acid NH2-terminal protein that preserves the intrachain disulphide bridge of the heparin-binding domain is capable of binding to heparin-Sepharose and incorporating into the extracellular matrix. (b) A shorter 164 amino acid NH2-terminal peptide that does not contain the intrachain disulphide bridge of the heparin-binding domain is neither able to bind to heparin-Sepharose nor able to incorporate into the extracellular matrix. (c) The region of interchain disulphide bridging necessary for trimer assembly resides within a cluster of seven cysteine residues immediately adjacent to the heparin-binding domain.