Previous results have established that 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA)-type tumor promoters can alter the properties of the epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor through activation of protein kinase C. In order to determine whether other, non-TPA-type tumor promoters might similarly influence growth-mediating receptors, we investigated the effect of palytoxin on EGF binding in Swiss 3T3 fibroblasts and human epidermal carcinoma (A431) cells. In both cell types, pretreatment with a low dose of palytoxin (1-11 pM) at 37 degrees C causes a decrease in EGF binding. In Swiss 3T3 cells the inhibitory effect is temperature dependent and does not occur at 4 degrees C, indicating that palytoxin is not directly competing with EGF for binding. As assessed by effects on DNA synthesis, palytoxin is not toxic at these concentrations and does not appear to be mitogenic for these cells. Although palytoxin, like phorbol esters, alters EGF binding, its action in Swiss 3T3 cells differs from that of TPA-type tumor promoters in at least 4 respects: (a) the kinetics and dose dependence differ significantly from that of phorbol dibutyrate; (b) the effect is not readily reversible; (c) there is loss of low-affinity as well as high-affinity binding sites; (d) the effect is independent of cellular protein kinase C levels. These results indicate that palytoxin is capable of heterologous regulation of the EGF receptor through a novel mechanism and suggest that certain non-TPA-type tumor promoters as well as TPA-type tumor promoters may act in part through modulation of growth regulatory pathways.