We have used a quantitative cell attachment assay to compare the interactions of cranial and trunk neural crest cells with the extracellular matrix (ECM) molecules fibronectin, laminin and collagen types I and IV. Antibodies to the beta 1 subunit of integrin inhibited attachment under all conditions tested, suggesting that integrins mediate neural crest cell interactions with these ECM molecules. The HNK-1 antibody against a surface carbohydrate epitope under certain conditions inhibited both cranial and trunk neural crest cell attachment to laminin, but not to fibronectin. An antiserum to alpha 1 intergrin inhibited attachment of trunk, but not cranial, neural crest cells to laminin and collagen type I, though interactions with fibronectin or collagen type IV were unaffected. The surface properties of trunk and cranial neural crest cells differed in several ways. First, trunk neural crest cells attached to collagen types I and IV, but cranial neural crest cells did not. Second, their divalent cation requirements for attachment to ECM molecules differed. For fibronectin substrata, trunk neural crest cells required divalent cations for attachment, whereas cranial neural crest cells bound in the absence of divalent cations. However, cranial neural crest cells lost this cation-independent attachment after a few days of culture. For laminin substrata, trunk cells used two integrins, one divalent cation-dependent and the other divalent cation-independent (Lallier, T. E. and Bronner-Fraser, M. (1991) Development 113, 1069–1081). In contrast, cranial neural crest cells attached to laminin using a single, divalent cation-dependent receptor system. Immunoprecipitations and immunoblots of surface labelled neural crest cells with HNK-1, alpha 1 integrin and beta 1 integrin antibodies suggest that cranial and trunk neural crest cells possess biochemically distinct integrins. Our results demonstrate that cranial and trunk cells differ in their mechanisms of adhesion to selected ECM components, suggesting that they are non-overlapping populations of cells with regard to their adhesive properties.