Previous studies in this laboratory have led to the identification of the neural cell adhesion molecule, N-CAM, a homophilic ligand that mediates adhesion between neurons as well as between neurons and striated muscle precursors. By means of a similar immunological approach but with different assays, we have now identified a cell adhesion molecule on neurons (Ng-CAM) that mediates the heterotypic adhesion between neuronal membranes and glial cells. In this paper, we compare certain aspects of the structure and function of Ng-CAM and embryonic N-CAM from the chicken. Ng-CAM was localized by specific antibodies on neurons but not on glia, and double-staining methods showed that individual neurons contained both Ng-CAM and N-CAM. Embryonic Ng-CAM migrates primarily as a single component of Mr 135,000; its apparent Mr shifted to 127,000 after neuraminidase treatment. In contrast, the embryonic form of N-CAM migrates on NaDodSO4/polyacrylamide gels in the apparent Mr range of 200,000-250,000; after neuraminidase treatment, N-CAM migrates as two components of Mr 170,000 and Mr 140,000. Although both Ng-CAM and N-CAM have calcium-independent binding mechanisms, immunologically based cell adhesion assays suggested that they have different specificities in mediating cell adhesion. Whereas 0.25 micrograms of Ng-CAM partially neutralized the ability of 0.5 mg of polyspecific antineural Fab' fragments to inhibit the heterotypic binding of neuronal membrane vesicles to glial cells and larger amounts of Ng-CAM completely neutralized this inhibition, 20 micrograms of N-CAM had no neutralization activity in this assay. Reciprocally, 0.25 micrograms of N-CAM partially neutralized the ability of 0.5 mg of the same Fab' fragments to inhibit the direct homotypic aggregation of neuronal cells, but 20 micrograms of Ng-CAM had no detectable activity. Although peptide maps of the two cell adhesion molecules differed considerably and despite the differences in binding specificity of these molecules, two independently derived monoclonal antibodies were found to crossreact with both Ng-CAM and N-CAM. Therefore, these different neuronal cell adhesion molecules with distinct binding specificities share at least one antigenic determinant, raising the possibility that they arose from a common evolutionary precursor.