The neural cell adhesion molecule (N-CAM) exists in two major forms [ld (large cytoplasmic domain) peptide and sd (small cytoplasmic domain) peptide] that contain transmembrane segments and different cytoplasmic domains and in a third form [ssd (small surface domain) peptide] that lacks transmembrane and cytoplasmic regions. All forms have the same extracellular region of more than 600 amino acid residues, a region also found in a fragment (Fr2) that can be released from cells by proteolysis. The liver cell adhesion molecule (L-CAM) is expressed as a single species that is distinct from N-CAM, but its extracellular region can also be obtained as a proteolytic fragment (Ft1). Examination of the various forms of N-CAM and the Ft1 fragment of L-CAM by electron microscopy of rotary shadowed molecules indicated that they all have rod-shaped structures that contain a hinge region which is apparently flexible. Both the ssd chain and the Fr2 fragment of N-CAM are single rods bent into arms approximately 18 and 10 nm long. The ld and sd chains are longer bent rods that form rosettes comprising two to six branches; detergent treatment disrupts these rosettes into single rods. Specific antibodies that block homophilic N-CAM binding labeled the distal ends of the branches of the ld/sd rosettes and the ends of the longer arm of both the ssd chain and the Fr2 fragment. Antibodies that bind to the sialic acid-rich region of N-CAM bound near the hinge. These data indicate that the N-CAM rosettes are formed by interaction between their transmembrane or cytoplasmic domains and not by interactions involving their homophilic binding sites. The L-CAM Ft1 fragment is also a bent rod with an apparently flexible hinge; like the ssd chain and the Fr2 fragment of N-CAM, it does not form aggregates. The similarities between L-CAM and N-CAM, despite their differences in amino acid sequence, suggest that their general configuration and the presence of a flexible hinge are important elements in assuring effective and specific cell-cell adhesion.