Different beta(1) integrins bind Arg-Gly-Asp (RGD) peptides with differing specificities, suggesting a role for residues in the alpha subunit in determining ligand specificity. Integrin alpha(5)beta(1) has been shown to bind with high affinity to peptides containing an Arg-Gly-Asp-Gly-Trp (RGDGW) sequence but with relatively low affinity to other RGD peptides. The residues within the ligand-binding pocket that determine this specificity are currently unknown. A cyclic peptide containing the RGDGW sequence was found to strongly perturb the binding of the anti-alpha(5) monoclonal antibody (mAb) 16 to alpha(5)beta(1). In contrast, RGD peptides lacking the tryptophan residue acted as weak inhibitors of mAb 16 binding. The epitope of mAb 16 has previously been localized to a region of the alpha(5) subunit that contains Ser(156)-Trp(157). Mutation of Trp(157) (but not of Ser(156) or surrounding residues) to alanine blocked recognition of mAb 16 and perturbed the high affinity binding of RGDGW-containing peptides to alpha(5)beta(1). The same mutation also abrogated recognition of the alpha(5)beta(1)-specific ligand peptide Arg-Arg-Glu-Thr-Ala-Trp-Ala (RRETAWA). Based on these findings, we propose that Trp(157) of alpha(5) participates in a hydrophobic interaction with the tryptophan residue in RGDGW, and that this interaction determines the specificity of alpha(5)beta(1) for RGDGW-containing peptides. Since the RGD sequence is recognized predominantly by amino acid residues on the beta(1) subunit, our results suggest that Trp(157) of alpha(5) must lie very close to these residues. Our findings therefore provide new insights into the structure of the ligand-binding pocket of alpha(5)beta(1).