The mechanism by which pleural mesothelial cells, the likely progenitor cells of asbestos-induced mesothelioma, recognize and internalize crocidolite asbestos is unknown. Because incubation of asbestos fibers with serum increases their association with cells, we asked whether a protein coat on asbestos increased internalization of fibers via specific cellular receptors. Coating crocidolite with citronectin, but not with fibronectin or other proteins, increased fiber internalization by rabbit pleural mesothelial cells, as measured by a new technique using fluorescence confocal microscopy. Receptors for vitronectin, alpha v beta 3 and alpha v beta 5, were identified on mesothelial cells. Inhibiting vitronectin receptors by plating cells on a vitronectin substrate or incubating cells with excess soluble vitronectin reduced internalization of vitronectin-coated crocidolite. Inhibition of alpha v beta 5, but not alpha v beta 3, with blocking antibodies similarly reduced internalization. In addition, alpha v beta 5, but not alpha v beta 3, showed immunocytochemical colocalization with fibers. Of biologic relevance, coating crocidolite with serum also increased internalization via alpha v beta 5, an effect dependent on the vitronectin in serum. We conclude that pleural mesothelial cells recognize and internalize vitronectin- and serum-coated asbestos via the integrin alpha v beta 5. Since integrins initiate some of the same signaling pathways as does asbestos, our findings may provide insights into the mechanisms of asbestos-induced biologic effects.