Theoretical considerations suggest that external forces play a significant role in cell-cell conjugate formation and may lead to the misinterpretation of adhesion data. To test this, the stability of conjugates formed between CTL and fibroblast target cells (TC) was examined in the controlled shear environment of a parallel plate flow chamber. Murine fibroblast targets expressing class I maternally transmitted Ag Mtaa or Mtab were grown on a glass slide that formed one wall of the flow chamber and were used in conjunction with anti-Mtaa and anti-Mtab specific mouse CTL clones to establish a panel of Ag-reciprocal targets and lymphocytes. Although cytolysis assays indicated that lymphocytes recognized and destroyed appropriate but not inappropriate targets, the stability of some CTL/TC conjugates was Ag independent. In all cases, the conjugate stability was shear dependent over a 100-fold range (0.04 to 4.0 dynes/cm2). For some clones, the ratio of the stabilities of Ag-specific CTL/TC conjugates to nonspecific conjugates was significantly enhanced with increasing shear. This implies that the role of Ag specificity in CTL/TC adhesion may be misinterpreted if the shear environment of CTL/TC conjugates is unknown or uncontrolled. Kinetic analysis revealed that conjugate stability was dependent on the exposure time to external forces and that there existed two populations of conjugates; weak associations that disengaged within the first 30 s of flow, and strong associations that remained attached even after a 5-min exposure to a steady shear stress. The stability of Ag-specific CTL/TC conjugates at 0.04 dynes/cm2 was enhanced by 50% as the temperature was increased from 25 to 37°C, whereas the stability of nonspecific CTL/TC associations were not affected. This result indicates that significant Ag-specific strengthening may occur at physiologic temperatures. This work suggests that importance of attention to role of fluid mechanical shear stress in standard adhesion assays.