125I-labeled recombinant human GM-CSF was used to identify and characterize receptors specific for this lymphokine on both a mature primary cell, human neutrophils, and on the undifferentiated promyelomonocytic leukemia cell line, HL-60. Human GM-CSF also bound to primary human monocytes and to the myelogenous leukemia cell line, KG-1, but not to any of the murine cells known to express the murine GM-CSF receptor. In addition, although some murine T lymphomas can express the GM-CSF receptor, none of the human cell lines of T cell lineage that we examined bound iodinated human GM-CSF. Binding to all cell types was specific and saturable. Equilibrium binding studies revealed that on all cell types examined, GM-CSF bound to a single class of high affinity receptor (100-500 receptors per cell) with a Ka of 10(9)-10(10)/M. More extensive characterization with neutrophils and HL-60 cells showed that in both cases, binding of GM-CSF was rapid at 37 degrees C with a slow subsequent dissociation rate that exhibited marked biphasic kinetics. Among a panel of lymphokines and growth hormones, only human GM-CSF could compete for binding of human 125I-GM-CSF to these cells. GM-CSF can not only stimulate the proliferation and differentiation of granulocyte/macrophage precursor cells, but can modulate the functional activity of mature granulocytes and macrophages as well. No significant differences in the kinetic parameters of receptor binding were seen between mature neutrophils and the undifferentiated promyelocytic leukemia cell line HL-60, indicating that maturation-specific responses to GM-CSF are not mediated by overt changes in the binding characteristics of the hormone for its receptor.