Laminin and type IV collagen were compared for the ability to promote aortic endothelial cell adhesion and directed migration in vitro. Substratum-adsorbed IV promoted aortic endothelial cell adhesion in a concentration dependent fashion attaining a maximum level 141-fold greater than controls within 30 min. Aortic endothelial cell adhesion to type IV collagen was not inhibited by high levels (10-3 M) of arginyl-glycyl-aspartyl-serine. In contrast, adhesion of aortic endothelial cells on laminin was slower, attaining only 53% of the adhesion observed on type IV collagen by 90 min. Type IV collagen when added to the lower well of a Boyden chamber stimulated the directional migration of aortic endothelial cells in a concentration dependent manner with a maximal response 6.9-fold over control levels, whereas aortic endothelial cells did not migrate in response to lamiinin at any concentration (.01-2.0 x 10-7 M). Triple helix-rich fragments of type IV collagen were nearly as active as intact type IV collagen in stimulating both adhesion and migration whereas the carboxy terminal globular domain was less active at promoting adhesion (36% of the adhesion promoted by intact type IV collagen) or migration. Importantly, aortic endothelial cells also migrate to substratum adsorbed gradients of type IV collagen suggesting that the mechanism of migration is haptotactic in nature. These results demonstrate that the aortic endothelial cell adhesion and migration is preferentially promoted by type IV collagen compared with laminin, and has a complex molecular basis which may be important in angiogenesis and large vessel repair.