A transmembrane extracellular matrix receptor of the integrin family, alpha 6 beta 4, is a component of the hemidesmosome, an adhesion complex of importance in epithelial cell-connective tissue attachment (Stepp, M. A., S. Spurr-Michaud, A. Tisdale, J. Elwell, and I. K. Gipson. 1990. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 87:8970-8974; Jones, J. C. R., M. A. Kurpakus, H. M. Cooper, and V. Quaranta. 1991. Cell Regulation. 2:427-438). Cytosolic components of hemidesmosomes include bullous pemphigoid (BP) antigens while extracellular components include a 125-kD component of anchoring filaments (CAF) and collagen type VII-containing anchoring fibrils. We have monitored the incorporation of the alpha 6 beta 4 integrins into forming hemidesmosomes in an in vitro wound-healing explant model. In epithelial cells recently migrated from the edges of unwounded sites over bare connective tissue, alpha 6 beta 4 first appears along the entire cell surface. At this stage, these cells contain little or no cytosolic hemidesmosomal components, at least as detectable by immunofluorescence using BP autoantibodies, whereas they are already positive for laminin and CAF. At a later stage, as cells become positive for cytosolic hemidesmosome components such as BP antigens as well as collagen type VII, alpha 6 beta 4 becomes concentrated along the basal pole of the epithelial cell where it abuts the connective tissue of the explant. Polyclonal antibodies to beta 4 do not interfere with the migration of epithelial cells in the explant. However, they prevent assembly of hemidesmosomal complexes and inhibit expression of collagen type VII in cells that have migrated over wound areas. In addition, they induce disruption of established hemidesmosomes in nonmigrating cells of the unwounded area of the explant. Monoclonal antibodies to alpha 6 have a more dramatic effect, since they completely detach epithelial cells in the unwounded area of the explant. Antibodies to CAF also detach epithelial cells in unwounded areas, apparently by inducing separation between epithelium and connective tissue at the lamina lucida of the basement membrane zone. These results suggest a model whereby polarization of alpha 6 beta 4 to the basal surface of the cells, perhaps induced by a putative anchoring filament-associated ligand, triggers assembly of hemidesmosome plaques.