Interleukin 5 (IL-5) acts on eosinophil differentiation and activation, suggesting the existence of a membrane receptor for IL-5 on eosinophils. Here, we report that 125I-labeled recombinant human IL-5 bound, at 4 degrees C, to high affinity receptors on human eosinophils. The association constant was higher for hypodense eosinophils (1.93 x 10(9) M-1) than for normodense cells (0.39 x 10(9) M-1), with a closely related number of receptor sites per cell. No specific binding occurred on neutrophils. The specific binding of IL-5 was induced by overnight incubation at 37 degrees C of human eosinophils with granulocyte/macrophage (GM)-CSF. The levels of increase were significantly higher for normodense than for hypodense eosinophils, suggesting a previous in vivo activation of the later subpopulation by GM-CSF. IL-3 was ineffective by itself but synergistically enhanced the effect of GM-CSF. Specificity studies showed that the binding of 125I-labeled IL-5 was inhibited by IL-5, but not by other cytokines, on human eosinophils. These results show the existence of a specific binding site for IL-5 on human eosinophils with a variable affinity on eosinophil hypodense or normodense subpopulations, as previously reported for other membrane receptors.