Parallel cytometric and fluorimetric analyses of the interaction of a fluoresceinated N-formyl hexapeptide (N-formyl-Nle-Leu-Phe-Nle-Tyr-Lys-fluorescein, Nle = norleucine) with its receptors on human neutrophils are presented. The cytometric analyses take advantage of the ability of the fluorescence flow cytometer to discriminate free and receptor-bound ligand in a homogeneous real-time assay. The spectrofluorometric analysis relies on a high affinity antibody to fluorescein to discriminate free and bound ligand. We find that the number of receptors for formyl peptides on the surface of a resting cell is 53,000 +/- 13,000 (Kd approximately 0.6 +/- 0.2 nM). We use commercially available cytometric standards to calibrate the cytometer and we obtain similar values for the number of receptors. The temperature dependence of the kinetics of ligand-receptor interactions have been examined. The association rate constant varies from approximately 3 X 10(8) M-1 min-1 at 4 degrees C to approximately 10(9) M-1 min-1 at 37 degrees C (delta H approximately 8 kcal/mol). While ligand internalization is blocked at 4 degrees C, at 37 degrees C internalization proceeds at an initial rate of approximately 24% of the occupied receptors/min following a latency period of approximately 20-30 s. Intermediate rates and longer latency periods are found at 15 and 25 degrees C. Dissociation of the ligand is heterogeneous and depends both on the length of time of association and the temperature. After short periods of association, the ligand dissociates with t1/2 approximately 1-5 min. After longer periods (30 min at 15 degrees C or 100 min at 4 degrees C), but while the ligand-receptor complex remains on the cell surface, t1/2 increases to greater than 30 min. It appears that the ligand-receptor complex undergoes an alteration in affinity, with a time course at elevated temperatures, which parallels or lags behind the time course of the participation of the occupied receptors in cell activation.