Experiments were performed to examine how human granulocytes process the chemotactic peptide N-formyl-Met-Leu-Phe after stimulation by the same peptide. Purified human granulocytes were stimulated with 50 nM N-formyl-Met-Leu-[3H]Phe at 37 degrees C for various times, washed, lysed by N2 cavitation, and fractionated by isopycnic sucrose density gradient sedimentation. The major subcellular fractions identified were plasma membrane, Golgi, granules, endoplasmic reticulum, and mitochondria. After 1 min of stimulation, radioactivity was found only in the plasma membrane (sedimentable) and cytosol (soluble) fraction. At 5, 10, and 25 min, radioactivity also appeared in a sedimentable, low density fraction (25-28% sucrose) enriched in galactosyl transferase activity and containing Golgi structures. The accumulation in the sedimentable fractions was maximal after 5 min but continued to increase linearly in the cytosol fraction. Incorporation of radioactivity into cells or membrane and soluble fractions was 60 to 85% specific and was inhibited if incubation with N-formyl-Met-Leu-[3H]Phe was performed at 4 degrees C. 80-90% of the radiolabel in the plasma membrane or Golgi-containing fractions remained sedimentable despite freeze thawing or sonication. Solubilization of these fractions in Triton X-100 followed by Sepharose 4B column chromatography revealed that the radiolabel eluted in the void volume. Our results are consistent with internalization which proceeds by passage of an occupied receptor in a high affinity, supramolecular complex from the plasma membrane to the Golgi followed by accumulation of peptide in the cytosol.