Some neuron-derived cells, such as neuroblastoma cells, adhere and extend neurites on fibronectin (FN) substrata by processes that can be independent of binding to the Arg-Gly-Asp-Ser sequence (RGDS in FN) and independent of proteoglycan/ganglioside-binding activities of FN. Proteolytic fragments of various FNs have been used in this study to map a new adhesion-promoting domain in FNs that may be neural cell-specific. A thermolysin-generated fragment of human plasma FN (F110 containing the RGDS domain) or the analagous fragment from transformed human cell FN (F120, also containing the alternately spliced extra domain b[EDb]) facilitate RGDS-independent adherence and neurite extension of human neuroblastoma cells and an F11 hybrid neuronal line (by fusion of mouse neuroblastoma cells with rat dorsal root ganglion neurons) as effectively as adherence and neurite extension on intact FN. Since neither F110 nor F120 contains sequences from the alternately spliced IIICS region of FN, neurite-promoting activity in these fragments cannot be ascribed to a recently discovered cell-binding domain in this region. Furthermore, F120 could be cleaved into two subfragments retaining virtually all the sequence of the parent fragment: F35 from the C terminus of F120 containing the RGDS domain, and F90 from the N terminus containing most of the EDb region bordering the thermolysin cleavage site. These neuronal cells could adhere but not extend neurites on substrata coated with either F35 or F90 alone while 3T3 cells could adhere only on F35. Mixtures of F35 and F90 on substrata could reconstitute some, but not nearly all, of the neurite-promoting activity of F120. Therefore, these data identify a new cell-binding domain in common sequences of FNs on the N-terminal side of EDb and demonstrate cooperativity between this RGDS-independent domain and the RGDS-dependent domain for maximal differentiation of these neuron-derived cells. Several possibilities for a receptor directed to this new domain are discussed.

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