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We have examined the mechanisms involved in the interaction of avian neural crest cells with collagen types I and IV (Col I and IV) during their adhesion and migration in vitro. For this purpose native Col IV was purified from chicken tissues, characterized biochemically and ultrastructurally. Purified chicken Col I and Col IV, and various proteolytic fragments of the collagens, were used in quantitative cell attachment and migration assays in conjunction with domain-specific collagen antibodies and antibodies to avian integrin subunits. Neural crest cells do not distinguish between different macromolecular arrangements of Col I during their initial attachment, but do so during their migration, showing a clear preference for polymeric Col I. Interaction with Col I is mediated by the alpha 1 beta 1 integrin, through binding to a segment of the alpha 1(I) chain composed of fragment CNBr3. Neural crest cell attachment and migration on Col IV involves recognition of conformation-dependent sites within the triple-helical region and the noncollagenous, carboxyl-terminal NC1 domain. This recognition requires integrity of inter- and intrachain disulfide linkages and correct folding of the molecule. Moreover, there also is evidence that interaction sites within the NC1 domain may be cryptic, being exposed during migration of the cells in the intact collagen as a result of the prolonged cell-substratum contact. In contrast to Col I, neural crest cell interaction with Col IV is mediated by beta 1-class integrins other than alpha 1 beta 1.