Specific interactions between desmoplakins I and II (DP I and II) and other desmosomal or cytoskeletal molecules have been difficult to determine in part because of the complexity and insolubility of the desmosome and its constituents. We have used a molecular genetic approach to investigate the role that DP I and II may play in the association of the desmosomal plaque with cytoplasmic intermediate filaments (IF). A series of mammalian expression vectors encoding specific predicted domains of DP I were transiently expressed in cultured cells that form (COS-7) and do not form (NIH-3T3) desmosomes. Sequence encoding a small antigenic peptide was added to the 3' end of each mutant DP cDNA to facilitate immunolocalization of mutant DP protein. Light and electron microscopical observations revealed that DP polypeptides including the 90-kD carboxy-terminal globular domain of DP I specifically colocalized with and ultimately resulted in the complete disruption of IF in both cell lines. This effect was specific for IF as microtubule and microfilament networks were unaltered. This effect was also specific for the carboxyl terminus of DP, as the expression of the 95-kD rod domain of DP I did not visibly alter IF networks. Immunogold localization of COS-7 cells transfected with constructs including the carboxyl terminus of DP demonstrated an accumulation of mutant protein in perinuclear aggregates within which IF subunits were sequestered. These results suggest a role for the DP carboxyl terminus in the attachment of IF to the desmosome in either a direct or indirect manner.