Cytotactin/tenascin is a multidomain extracellular matrix protein that inhibits both cell spreading and intracellular alkalinization. The protein has multiple different domains which are homologous to regions in epidermal growth factor, fibronectin, and fibrinogen. In previous studies, we produced nonoverlapping fusion proteins corresponding to these domains and examined their effects on cell attachment and spreading. Based on their ability either to promote or to inhibit cell attachment, two of these fusion proteins were shown to be adhesive and two were shown to be counteradhesive. To determine how the adhesive and counteradhesive activities of different cytotactin/tenascin domains alter intracellular pH (designated pHi), we have measured pHi, in NIH3T3 and U251MG cells in the presence of the cytotactin/tenascin fusion proteins and intact cytotactin/tenascin, as well as fibronectin. Cells incubated in the presence of intact cytotactin/tenascin or of the counteradhesive fusion proteins had a pHi lower than control cells. In contrast, the presence of the adhesive fusion proteins or of fibronectin caused cells to have higher pHi values than control cells. When two fragments were simultaneously presented, one of which alone increased pHi and the other of which alone decreased pHi, the predominant effect was that of lowered pHi. Incubation with an RGD-containing peptide derived from the cytotactin/tenascin sequence inhibited alkalinization promoted by the adhesive fragment containing the second through sixth fibronectin type III repeats that was known to bind to integrins. Incubation of the cells with heparinase I or III inhibited the intracellular alkalinization of cells plated in the presence of the other adhesive fusion protein containing the fibrinogen domain, suggesting that heparan sulfate proteoglycans were involved in these pHi changes. The activity of protein kinase C appeared to be important for the changes in pHi mediated by all of the proteins. The protein kinase C inhibitor Calphostin C blocked the rise in pHi elicited by the adhesive fusion proteins and by fibronectin. Moreover, activation of protein kinase C by the addition of phorbol esters increased the pHi in cells plated on cytotactin/tenascin or counteradhesive fusion proteins and reversed their effects. The results of this study support the hypothesis that cytotactin/tenascin can bind to multiple cell surface receptors and thereby elicit different physiological responses. Decreases in pHi are correlated with the phenomenon of counteradhesion whereas the ability to increase pHi is associated with cell attachment via at least two different types of cell surface receptors. The data raise the possibility that binding of cytotactin/tenascin may influence primary cellular processes such as migration and proliferation through the differential regulation of pHi.