The attachment of erythrocytes infected with P. falciparum to human venular endothelium is the primary step leading to complications from severe and cerebral malaria. Intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1, CD54) has been implicated as a cytoadhesion receptor for P. falciparum-infected erythrocytes. Characterization of domain deletion, human/murine chimeric ICAM-1 molecules, and amino acid substitution mutants localized the primary binding site for parasitized erythrocytes to the first amino-terminal immunoglobulin-like domain of ICAM-1. The ICAM-1 binding site is distinct from those recognized by LFA-1, Mac-1, and the human major-type rhinoviruses. Synthetic peptides encompassing the binding site on ICAM-1 inhibited malaria-infected erythrocyte adhesion to ICAM-1-coated surfaces with a Ki of 0.1-0.3 mM, whereas the Ki for soluble ICAM-1 is 0.15 microM. These findings have implications for the therapeutic reversal of malaria-infected erythrocyte sequestration in the host microvasculature.