The active metabolite of vitamin D3, 1 alpha,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 (1,25(OH)2D3), inhibited morphologic and enzymatic expression during differentiation of preadipocyte to adipocyte. In the presence of approximately 6.4-20 X 10(-10) M 1,25(OH)2D3, the triacylglycerol accumulation was only 50% of that of fully differentiated control cells. High-affinity binding sites for 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 were detected in two preadipose cell lines. The 1,25(OH)2D3 binding component sediments at 3.3 S in 4-24% (w/v) sucrose gradients prepared in hypertonic buffer. Binding assay revealed that Nmax was 70 fmol/mg protein and 90 fmol/mg protein, and Kd value was 170 pM and 37 pM in cell lines ST 13 and 3T3 L1, respectively. We also found that differentiated adipocytes did not contain specific receptors for 1,25(OH)2D3. 1,25(OH)2D3, 1(OH)D3, 24,25(OH)2D3, and 24(OH)D3 all suppressed differentiation of preadipocytes to adipocytes, and the dose required closely reflected the affinities of the various metabolites and the synthetic derivative for 1,25(OH)2D3 receptor. It is suggested that the action of vitamin D3 on preadipocyte differentiation may result from a receptor-mediated event.