Actin, keratin, vinculin and desmoplakin organization were studied in primary mouse keratinocytes before and during Ca2+-induced cell contact formation. Double-label fluorescence shows that in cells cultured in low Ca2+ medium, keratin-containing intermediate filament bundles (IFB) and desmoplakin-containing spots are both concentrated towards the cell center in a region bounded by a series of concentric microfilament bundles (MFB). Within 5-30 min after raising Ca2+ levels, a discontinuous actin/vinculin-rich, submembranous zone of fluorescence appears at cell-cell interfaces. This zone is usually associated with short, perpendicular MFB, which become wider and longer with time. Later, IFB and the desmoplakin spots are seen aligned along the perpendicular MFB as they become redistributed to cell-cell interfaces where desmosomes form. Ultrastructural analysis confirms that before the Ca2+ switch, IFB and desmosomal components are found predominantly within the perimeter defined by the outermost of the concentric MFB. Individual IF often splay out, becoming interwoven into these MFB in the region of cell-substrate contact. In the first 30 min after the Ca2+ switch, areas of submembranous dense material (identified as adherens junctions), which are associated with the perpendicular MFB, can be seen at newly formed cell-cell contact sites. By 1-2 h, IFB-desmosomal component complexes are aligned with the perpendicular MFB as the complexes become redistributed to cell-cell interfaces. Cytochalasin D treatment causes the redistribution of actin into numerous patches; keratin-containing IFB undergo a concomitant redistribution, forming foci that coincide with the actin-containing aggregates. These results are consistent with an IF-MF association before and during desmosome formation in the primary mouse epidermal keratinocyte culture system, and with the temporal and spatial coordination of desmosome and adherens junction formation.