We used two human cell lines, NK-like YT-C3 and an EBV-containing B cell line, 3B6, as models to study the receptor(s) for IL-1. Two distinct types of saturable binding sites were found on both cell lines at 37 degrees C. Between 1 pM and 100 pM of 125I-IL-1-alpha concentration, saturable binding sites were detected on the YT-C3 cells with a K of 4 x 10(-11) M. The K found for the IL-1-alpha binding sites on 3B6 cells was 7.5 x 10(-11) M. An additional binding curve was detected above 100 pM on YT-C3 cells with a K of 7 x 10(-9) M and on 3B6 cells with a K of 5 x 10(-9) M. Scatchard plot analysis revealed 600 sites/cell with high affinity binding and 7000 sites/cell with low affinity for YT-C3 cells and 300 sites/cell with high affinity binding and 6000 sites/cell with low affinity for 3B6 cells. At 37 degrees C, the internalization of 125I-labeled IL-1 occurred via both high and low affinity IL-1R on both YT-C3 and 3B6 cells, whereas the rates of internalization for high affinity binding sites on YT-C3 cells were predominant in comparison to that of low affinity binding sites. In chemical cross-linking studies of 125I-IL-1-alpha to 3B6 and YT-C3 cells, two protein bands were immunoprecipitated with Mr around 85 to 90 kDa leading to an estimation of the Mr of the IL-1R around 68 to 72 kDa. In similar experiments, the Mr found for the IL-1R expressed on the murine T cell line EL4 was slightly higher (around 80 kDa). Whether these distinct affinity binding sites are shared by a single molecule or by various chains remains to be elucidated.