We have previously described two proteoglycans from human sciatic nerve which are immunochemically related to the chondroitin sulphate proteoglycans versican and decorin. The chondroitin sulphate of the versican-like molecule and the core protein of the decorin-like molecule have been found previously to be up-regulated after lesioning the adult mouse sciatic nerve. To investigate if the versican- and decorin-like molecules are involved in cell-extracellular matrix interactions, we studied the effect of both molecules on cell adhesion. The versican- and decorin-like molecules, substrate-coated in a mixture with fibronectin, but not with laminin or collagen types I or IV, inhibited the adhesion of several cell lines, neonatal dorsal root ganglion neurons and Schwann cells. The inhibitory activity was concentration-dependent and mediated by the chondroitin sulphate. Furthermore, when different proteoglycans were incubated with fibronectin, only the versican- and decorin-like molecules and the chondroitin sulphate proteoglycan aggrecan, but not the heparan sulphate proteoglycan perlecan, were able to inhibit fibronectin-mediated cell adhesion. The versican- and decorin-like molecules, substrate-coated alone or in a mixture with fibronectin or laminin, were at most slightly inhibitory to neurite outgrowth from PC12 phaeochromocytoma cells and neonatal dorsal root ganglion neurons. In a solid-phase ligand-binding assay theversican- and decorin-like molecules interacted with fibronectin, but not with laminin or collagen types I and IV. Binding of the versican-like molecule to fibronectin and inhibition of cell adhesion by this molecule was mediated via the heparin and cell-binding domains of fibronectin. These observations suggest that binding of the two proteoglycans to fibronectin is involved in the modulation of adhesion of cells to fibronectin.