The mesothelium is a flat epithelial lining of serous cavities that could gate the traffic of molecules and cells between the circulation and these body compartments. The present study was designed to elucidate the capacity of mesothelial cells to express adhesion molecules and chemoattractant cytokines, two fundamental mechanisms of regulation of leukocyte recruitment. Cultured human mesothelial cells express appreciable levels of intercellular adhesion molecule 1 (ICAM- 1) and vascular cell adhesion molecule 1 (VCAM-1), and these were increased by in vitro exposure to tumor necrosis factor (TNF), interferon gamma (IFN-gamma), or TNF and IFN-gamma. Interleukin 1 (IL- 1) was a less consistent stimulus for adhesion molecule expression in vitro. Unlike endothelial cells, used as a reference cell population, resting or stimulated mesothelial cells did not express E-selectin and ICAM-2, as assessed by flow cytometry. Analysis of VCAM-1 mRNA by reverse transcriptase and polymerase chain reaction using appropriate primers revealed that mesothelial cells expressed both the seven- and the six-Ig domain transcripts, with predominance of the longer species. Monocytes bound appreciably to "resting" and, to a greater extent, to stimulated mesothelial cells. Monocytes exposed to IFN-gamma and lipopolysaccharide, used as prototypic activation signals, showed increased capacity to bind mesothelial cells. Anti-CD18 monoclonal antibody significantly inhibited binding of monocytes to mesothelial cells, and this blocking effect was amplified by anti-very late antigen 4. Mesothelial cells were able to express the chemotactic cytokines IL- 8 and monocyte chemotactic protein 1 at the mRNA and protein levels. These results indicate that mesothelial cells can express a set of adhesion molecules (ICAM-1 and VCAM-1) overlapping with, but distinct from, that expressed in vascular endothelium (ICAM-1, ICAM-2, VCAM-1, E- selectin), and that these are functionally relevant for interacting with mononuclear phagocytes. The regulated expression of adhesion molecules and chemotactic cytokines by mesothelial cells is probably important in inflammatory and immune reactions that involve serous cavities, such as the long-known macrophage appearance and disappearance reactions.