At 4 degrees C transferrin bound to receptors on the reticulocyte plasma membrane, and at 37 degrees C receptor-mediated endocytosis of transferrin occurred. Uptake at 37 degrees C exceeded binding at 4 degrees C by 2.5-fold and saturated after 20-30 min. During uptake at 37 degrees C, bound transferrin was internalized into a trypsin-resistant space. Trypsinization at 4 degrees C destroyed surface receptors, but with subsequent incubation at 37 degrees C, surface receptors rapidly appeared (albeit in reduced numbers), and uptake occurred at a decreased level. After endocytosis, transferrin was released, apparently intact, into the extracellular space. At 37 degrees C colloidal gold-transferrin (AuTf) clustered in coated pits and then appeared inside various intracellular membrane-bounded compartments. Small vesicles and tubules were labeled after short (5-10 min) incubations at 37 degrees C. Larger multivesicular endosomes became heavily labeled after longer (20-35 min) incubations. Multivesicular endosomes apparently fused with the plasma membrane and released their contents by exocytosis. None of these organelles appeared to be lysosomal in nature, and 98% of intracellular AuTf was localized in acid phosphatase-negative compartments. AuTf, like transferrin, was released with subsequent incubation at 37 degrees C. Freeze-dried and freeze-fractured reticulocytes confirmed the distribution of AuTf in reticulocytes and revealed the presence of clathrin-coated patches amidst the spectrin coating the inner surface of the plasma membrane. These data suggest that transferrin is internalized via coated pits and vesicles and demonstrate that transferrin and its receptor are recycled back to the plasma membrane after endocytosis.