We investigated the role of cadherins in the solute barrier maintained by endothelial cells in vitro. Cell-column chromatographic measurement of endothelial barrier showed that reducing normal extracellular calcium from 1.2 to 0.12 mM increased endothelial permeability to 250% of baseline after 20 min. Restoring normal calcium restored the barrier within 15 min which remained stable for at least 60 min. We used sulfo-NHS-biotin and anti-cadherin antibodies to characterize endothelial proteins with possible roles in the maintenance of endothelial barrier. The non-specific probe sulfo-NHS-biotin identified at least ten endothelial cell surface proteins, with greatest labelling occurring at molecular weights of 125 and 145 kD. Six proteins, including the 125 and 145 kD proteins, associated with the cytoskeleton. Western blotting for the presence of classical cadherins containing the conserved cytoplasmic sequence CDPTAPPYDSLLVFDYEG detected two bands at 145 and 125 kD which associated with the cytoskeleton. Western blotting with an antibody, which recognizes FHLRAHAVDINGNQV, an extracellular homotypic binding region of N-cadherin, detects three bands. Of these three, one protein had a molecular weight of 125 kD and was associated with the cytoskeleton. Immunofluorescence with both N-cadherin and anti-peptide 1 antibodies found staining at endothelial cell borders. The utility of a newly developed cell-column calcium switch assay was tested by verifying the functional role of the previously described epithelial cadherin, uvomorulin, in epithelial barrier. We then applied this method to endothelial cell columns and found the N-cadherin antibody interfered with the reforming of interendothelial junctions. These results suggest that, as in epithelial cells, cadherins in bovine endothelial cells have a functional role in forming the calcium sensitive endothelial junction and may play an important role in the formation of normal barrier.