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Tensin, a 200-kD phosphoprotein of focal contacts, contains sequence homologies to Src (SH2 domain), and several actin-binding proteins. These features suggest that tensin may link the cell membrane to the cytoskeleton and respond directly to tyrosine kinase signalling pathways. Here we identify three distinct actin-binding domains within tensin. Recombinant tensin purified after overexpression by a baculovirus system binds to actin filaments with Kd = 0.1 microM, cross- links actin filaments at a molar ratio of 1:10 (tensin/actin), and retards actin assembly by barbed end capping with Kd = 20 nM. Tensin fragments were constructed and expressed as fusion proteins to map domains having these activities. Three regions from tensin interact with actin: two regions composed of amino acids 1 to 263 and 263 to 463, cosediment with F-actin but do not alter the kinetics of actin assembly; a region composed of amino acids 888-989, with sequence homology to insertin, retards actin polymerization. A claw-shaped tensin dimer would have six potential actin-binding sites and could embrace the ends of two actin filaments at focal contacts.