Glycoconjugates containing the disaccharide unit GlcNAc beta 1 leads to 3Gal beta were suggested as receptors for pneumococci adhering to human pharyngeal epithelial cells. The receptor activity was detected both by inhibition of adhesion by an excess of free oligosaccharide and by induction or increase of adhesion after coating of target cells with glycolipid. Studies with free natural and synthetic oligosaccharides identified the disaccharide GlcNAc beta 1 leads to 3Gal beta as one critical binding site. The specificity of recognition was shown inter alia by the lack of inhibitory activity of GlcNAc beta 1 leads to 4Gal beta, which differs only in the linkage of the two sugars. Specific interference with pneumococcal adhesion by administration of soluble receptor sugar may improve our understanding of the role of adhesion in vivo.