Cell adhesion to extracellular matrix components such as fibronectin has a complex basis, involving multiple determinants on the molecule that react with discrete cell surface macromolecules. Our previous results have demonstrated that normal and transformed cells adhere and spread on a 33-kD heparin binding fragment that originates from the carboxy-terminal end of particular isoforms (A-chains) of human fibronectin. This fragment promotes melanoma adhesion and spreading in an arginyl-glycyl-aspartyl-serine (RGDS) independent manner, suggesting that cell adhesion to this region of fibronectin is independent of the typical RGD/integrin-mediated binding. Two synthetic peptides from this region of fibronectin were recently identified that bound [3H]heparin in a solid-phase assay and promoted the adhesion and spreading of melanoma cells (McCarthy, J.B., M.K. Chelberg, D.J. Mickelson, and L.T. Furcht. 1988. Biochemistry. 27:1380-1388). The current studies further define the cell adhesion and heparin binding properties of one of these synthetic peptides. This peptide, termed peptide I, has the sequence YEKPGSPPREVVPRPRPGV and represents residues 1906-1924 of human plasma fibronectin. In addition to promoting RGD-independent melanoma adhesion and spreading in a concentration-dependent manner, this peptide significantly inhibited cell adhesion to the 33-kD fragment of intact fibronectin. Polyclonal antibodies generated against peptide I also significantly inhibited cell adhesion to the peptide, to the 33-kD fragment, but had minimal effect on melanoma adhesion to fibronectin. Anti-peptide I antibodies also partially inhibited [3H]heparin binding to fibronectin, suggesting that peptide I represents a major heparin binding domain on the intact molecule. The cell adhesion activity of another peptide from the 33-kD fragment, termed CS1 (Humphries, M.J., A. Komoriya, S.K. Akiyama, K. Olden, and K.M. Yamada. 1987. J. Biol. Chem., 262:6886-6892) was contrasted with peptide I. Whereas both peptides promoted RGD-independent cell adhesion, peptide CS1 failed to bind heparin, and exogenous peptide CS1 failed to inhibit peptide I-mediated cell adhesion. The results demonstrate a role for distinct heparin-dependent and -independent cell adhesion determinants on the 33-kD fragment, neither of which are related to the RGD-dependent integrin interaction with fibronectin.