The role of the epithelial adhesion molecule uvomorulin in the formation of the epithelial junctional complex in the Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK) cell line was investigated. Experiments were carried out to determine whether specific inhibition of uvomorulin function would interfere selectively with the formation, stability, or function of the apical zonula adherens (ZA) and zonula occludens (ZO), or whether it would interfere with all forms of intercellular contact including the desmosomes. The effects of blocking antibodies and Fab fragments to uvomorulin on the formation of the junctional complex was examined with a Ca2+ switch assay for de novo junction assembly. The formation of the ZO, the ZA, and the desmosomes was assayed by fluorescence staining with an antibody to the tight junction-specific protein ZO-1, with rhodamine-phalloidin for ZA-associated actin filaments, and with an anti-desmoplakin antibody, respectively. Under different conditions and times of antibody treatment the extent of inhibition of the formation of each of the junctional elements was very similar. The ability of the cells to eventually overcome the inhibitory effect of the antibodies and form junctions correlated with the reappearance of uvomorulin at the regions of cell-cell contact. Therefore uvomorulin seems to mediate an early adhesion event between epithelial cells that is a prerequisite for the assembly of all elements of the junctional complex. In contrast, the transepithelial electrical resistance of confluent, well-established monolayers of MDCK cells grown on filters was not greatly affected by treatment with the various antibodies or Fab fragments. A small transient decrease in resistance observed with the polyclonal alpha-uvomorulin IgG may be due to a more subtle modulation of the junctional complex.