We have used an in vitro model system of glass-supported planar membranes to study the effects of lateral mobility of membrane-bound receptors on cell adhesion. Egg phosphatidylcholine (PC) bilayers were reconstituted with two anchorage isoforms of the adhesion molecule lymphocyte function-associated antigen 3 (LFA-3). The diffusion coefficient of glycosyl phosphatidylinositol (GPI)-anchored LFA-3 approached that of phospholipids in the bilayers, whereas the transmembrane (TM)-anchored isoform of LFA-3 was immobile. Both static and laminar flow assays were used to quantify the strength of adherence to the lipid bilayers of the T lymphoma cell line Jurkat that expresses the counter-receptor CD2. Cell adhesion was dependent on LFA-3 density and was more efficient on membranes containing the GPI isoform than the TM isoform. Kinetic measurements demonstrated an influence of contact time on the strength of adhesion to the GPI isoform at lower site densities (25-50 sites/microns2), showing that the mobility of LFA-3 is important in adhesion strengthening. At higher site densities (1,500 sites/microns2) and longer contact times (20 min), Jurkat cell binding to the TM and GPI isoforms of LFA-3 showed equivalent adhesion strengths, although adhesion strength of the GPI isoform developed twofold more rapidly than the TM isoform. Reduction of CD2 mobility on Jurkat cells at 5 degrees C greatly decreased the rate of adhesion strengthening with the TM isoform of LFA-3, resulting in a 30-fold difference between the two LFA-3 isoforms. Our results demonstrate that the ability of a membrane receptor and its membrane-bound counter-receptor to diffuse laterally enhances cell adhesion both by allowing accumulation of ligands in the cell contact area and by increasing the rate of receptor-ligand bond formation.