We have investigated the conformation of Syrian hamster PrP(C) on the surface of transfected CHO cells by performing cross-competition experiments between a set of nine monoclonal antibody fragments (Fab) directed to defined epitopes throughout the protein. No competition was observed between antibodies recognizing epitopes located within the unstructured N-terminal portion of PrP(C) and those recognizing epitopes located within the ordered C-terminal half of the molecule. However, competition was observed between antibodies recognizing overlapping epitopes and between antibodies recognizing epitopes lying adjacent to one another in the PrP sequence. Titrating the reactivity of each Fab against cell-surface PrP(C) revealed a clear heterogeneity in the accessibility of different specific epitopes. Fab D18, recognizing sequence incorporating the first alpha-helix of PrP(C), bound the largest fraction of the cell-surface PrP population. In contrast, Fab E123, binding an epitope at the extreme N terminus of PrP, and Fab 13A5, binding an epitope in the central region of PrP, were able to recognize fewer than half the number of PrP(C) molecules bound by Fab D18. The pattern of antibody reactivity we observed may, in part, result from N-terminal truncation of a proportion of PrP(C) molecules found at the cell surface. However, truncation cannot account for the marked disparity between exposure of the Fab D18 and 13A5 epitopes, which lie adjacent in the PrP sequence. The relative inaccessibility of the 13A5 epitope likely reflects either PrP(C)-PrP(C) interaction, interaction between PrP(C) and other constituents on the cell membrane, or the existence of PrP(C) subspecies with distinct conformations.