To investigate the functional significance of epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor phosphorylation, experimental systems were explored in which receptor phosphorylation on tyrosine and serine/threonine could be differentially stimulated. Exposure of A431 cells to 20 nM EGF at 37 degrees C results in phosphorylation of serine, threonine, and tyrosine sites on the receptor. Monoclonal antibody (mAb) 225 binds to the EGF receptor with affinity comparable to EGF and competes with the binding of EGF. Exposure of A431 cells to 20 nM EGF in the presence of 300 nM anti-EGF receptor mAb 225 (15-fold excess) selectively activated serine and threonine phosphorylation of the receptor, but not tyrosine phosphorylation. This observation indicates that EGF-mediated receptor phosphorylation on tyrosine and on serine/threonine residues is dissociable. The intracellular fate of the EGF receptor was examined under conditions that produce different phosphorylation states of receptor amino acids. Exposure of A431 cells to EGF decreased the half-life (T1/2) of the receptor from 17.8 h to 5.6 h, with activation of tyrosine, serine, and threonine phosphorylation. Incubation with mAb 225 augmented the degradation rate (T1/2 = 8.5 h) without activation of receptor phosphorylation. Concurrent exposure to EGF (20 nM) and mAb 225 (300 nM) resulted in comparable enhanced degradation (T1/2 = 9.5 h), with increased phosphorylation only on serine and threonine residues. These results suggest that serine/threonine phosphorylation is irrelevant to the augmentation of receptor degradation. Methylamine, an inhibitor of lysosomal function that did not affect phosphorylation of the EGF receptor, completely protected EGF receptors from rapid degradation induced by EGF, but it only slightly altered the rate of EGF receptor degradation elicited by mAb 225 or by EGF plus 15-fold excess mAb 225. In contrast, mAb 455, which binds to the receptor but does not inhibit EGF binding and EGF-induced activation of phosphorylation on tyrosine, serine, and threonine residues, did not influence EGF-induced rapid, methylamine sensitive degradation of EGF receptor. The results suggest that when EGF receptors are internalized under conditions that do not activate the receptor tyrosine kinase, they are sorted into a nonlysosomal pathway that differs from the methylamine-sensitive lysosomal pathway traversed following activation by EGF. The data indicate the possibility of a function for tyrosine kinase activation and tyrosine autophosphorylation in determining the lysosomal intracellular pathway of EGF receptor processing and degradation.