Sustained activation of most G protein-coupled receptors causes a time-dependent reduction of receptor density in intact cells. This phenomenon, known as down-regulation, is believed to depend on a ligand-promoted change of receptor sorting from the default endosome-plasma membrane recycling pathway to the endosome-lysosome degradation pathway. This model is based on previous studies of epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor degradation and implies that receptors need to be endocytosed to be down-regulated. In stable clones of L cells expressing beta(2)-adrenergic receptors (beta(2)ARs), sustained agonist treatment caused a time-dependant decrease in both beta(2)AR binding sites and immuno-detectable receptor. Blocking beta(2)AR endocytosis with chemical treatments or by expressing a dominant negative mutant of dynamin could not prevent this phenomenon. Specific blockers of the two main intracellular degradation pathways, lysosomal and proteasome-associated, were ineffective in preventing beta(2)AR down-regulation. Further evidence for an endocytosis-independent pathway of beta(2)AR down-regulation was provided by studies in A431 cells, a cell line expressing both endogenous beta(2)AR and EGF receptors. In these cells, inhibition of endocytosis and inactivation of the lysosomal degradation pathway did not block beta(2)AR down-regulation, whereas EGF degradation was inhibited. These data indicate that, contrary to what is currently postulated, receptor endocytosis is not a necessary prerequisite for beta(2)AR down-regulation and that the inactivation of beta(2)ARs, leading to a reduction in binding sites, may occur at the plasma membrane.