We have followed the internalization pathway of both epidermal growth factor (EGF) and its receptor in human epidermoid carcinoma (A431) cells. Using EGF conjugated with horseradish peroxidase and anti-receptor monoclonal antibodies (TL5 and EGFR1) coupled either directly or indirectly to colloidal gold we have identified an extensive elaboration of endosomal compartments, consisting of a peripheral branching network of tubular cisternae connected to vacuolar elements that contain small vesicles and a pericentriolar compartment consisting of a tubular cisternal network connected to multivesicular bodies. Immunocytochemistry on frozen thin sections using receptor-specific antibody-gold revealed that at 4 degrees C in the presence of EGF, receptors were mainly on the plasma membrane and, to a lesser extent, within some elements of both the peripheral and pericentriolar endosomal compartments. Upon warming to 37 degrees C there was an EGF-dependent redistribution of most binding sites, first to the peripheral endosome compartment and then to the pericentriolar compartment and lysosomes. Upon warming only to 20 degrees C the ligand-receptor complex accumulated in the pericentriolar compartment. Acid phosphatase cytochemistry identifies hydrolytic activity only within secondary lysosomes and trans cisternae of the Golgi stacks. Together these observations suggest that the prelysosomal endosome compartment extends to the pericentriolar complex and that the transfer of EGF receptor complexes to the acid phosphatase-positive lysosome involves a discontinuous, temperature-dependent step.