The P-glycoprotein multidrug transporter functions as an ATP-driven efflux pump for a large number of structurally unrelated hydrophobic compounds. Substrates are believed to gain access to the transporter after partitioning into the membrane, rather than from the extracellular aqueous phase. The binding of drug substrates to P-glycoprotein may thus be modulated by the properties of the lipid bilayer. The interactions with P-glycoprotein of two drugs (vinblastine and daunorubicin) and a chemosensitizer (verapamil) were characterized by quenching of purified fluorescently labeled protein in the presence of various phospholipids. Biphasic quench curves were observed for vinblastine and verapamil, suggesting that more than one molecule of these compounds may bind to the transporter simultaneously. All three drugs bound to P-glycoprotein with substantially higher affinity in egg phosphatidylcholine (PC), compared to brain phosphatidylserine (PS) and egg phosphatidylethanolamine (PE). The nature of the lipid acyl chains also modulated binding, with affinity decreasing in the order egg PC > dimyristoyl-PC (DMPC) > dipalmitoyl-PC (DPPC). Following reconstitution of the transporter into DMPC, all three compounds bound to P-glycoprotein with 2-4-fold higher affinity in gel phase lipid relative to liquid-crystalline phase lipid. The P-glycoprotein ATPase stimulation/inhibition profiles for the drugs were also altered in different lipids, in a manner consistent with the observed changes in binding affinity. The ability of the drugs to partition into bilayers of phosphatidylcholines was determined. All of the drugs partitioned much better into egg PC relative to DMPC and DPPC. The binding affinity increased (i.e., the value of Kd decreased) as the drug-lipid partition coefficient increased, supporting the proposal that the effective concentration of the drug substrate in the membrane is important for interaction with the transporter. These results provide support for the vacuum cleaner model of P-glycoprotein action.