An ultrasonic standing wave trap [Langmuir 19 (2003) 3635] in which the morphologies of 2-D latex–microparticle aggregates, forming a pressure node plane, were characterised has been applied here to different cell suspensions with increasing order of specificity of cross-linking molecule, i.e. polylysine with chondrocytes; wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) with erythrocytes and surface receptors on neural cells. The outcome of initial cell–cell contact, i.e. whether the cells stuck at the point of contact (collision efficiency=1) or rolled around each other (collision efficiency=0), was monitored in situ by video-microscopy. The perimeter fractal dimensions (FD) of 2-D hexagonally symmetric, closely packed aggregates of control erythrocytes and chondrocytes were 1.16 and 1.18, respectively while those for the dendrititc aggregates formed initially by erythrocytes in 0.5 μg/ml WGA and chondrocytes in 20 μg/ml polylysine were 1.49 and 1.66. The FDs for control and molecularly cross-linked cells were typical of reaction-limited aggregation (RLA) and transport diffusion-limited aggregation (DLA), respectively. The FDs of the aggregates of cross-linked cells decreased with time to give more closely packed aggregates without clear hexagonal symmetry. Suspensions of neural cells formed dendritic aggregates. Spreading of inter-cellular membrane contact area occurred over 15 min for both erythrocyte and neural cell dendritic aggregates. The potential of the technique to characterise and control the progression of cell adhesion in suspension away from solid substrata is discussed.