Hemagglutination and lytic infection of host cells by polyoma virus has been shown to require specific sialyloligosaccharide structures. The nature of the sialyloligosaccharide sequence recognized by three binding variants of polyoma virus, the large plaque (LP), small plaque (SP), and Py235 variants, was examined. Hemagglutination of native erythrocytes and erythrocytes derivatized with highly specific sialyltransferases to contain cell surface sialyloligosaccharides of defined sequence was compared for the three variants. In addition, soluble glycoprotein inhibitors of known sialyloligosaccharide structure were used to further elucidate the specificities of the three variants. There are important differences in the receptors for these variants. While all three appear to bind the structure NeuAc alpha 2,3Gal beta 1,3GalNAc the LP and Py235 variant bind the disialyl structure NeuAc alpha 2,3Gal beta 1,3(NeuAc alpha 2,6)GalNAc with much lower affinity than does the SP virus. It is suggested that polyoma virus adsorption to cells may depend on the cell surface content of at least three different sialyloligosaccharide sequences and the relative abilities of the virus variant to utilize them as receptor determinants.