This study characterizes the interactions of various rat and human lipoproteins with the lipoprotein cell surface receptors of rat and human cells. Iodinated rat very low density lipoproteins (VLDL), rat chylomicron remnants, rat low density lipoproteins (LDL), and rat high density lipoproteins containing predominantly apoprotein E (HDL1) bound to high affinity cell surface receptors of cultured rat fibroblasts and smooth muscle cells. Rat VLDL and chylomicron remnants were most avidly bound; the B-containing LDL and the E-containing HDL1 displayed lesser but similar binding. Rat HDL (d = 1.125 to 1.21) exhibited weak receptor binding; however, after recentrifugation to remove apoprotein E, they were devoid of binding activity. Competitive binding studies at 4 degrees C confirmed these results for normal lipoproteins and indicated that VLDL (B-VLDL), LDL, and HDLc (cholesterol-rich HDL1) isolated from hypercholesterolemic rats had increased affinity for the rat receptors compared with their normal counterparts, the most pronounced change being in the LDL. The cell surface receptor pathway in rat fibroblasts and smooth muscle cells resembled the system described for human fibroblasts as follows: 1) lipoproteins containing either the B or E apoproteins interacted with the receptors; 2) receptor binding activity was abolished by acetoacetylation or reductive methylation of a limited number of lysine residues of the lipoproteins; 3) receptor binding initiated the process of internalization and degradation of the apo-B- and apo-E-containing lipoproteins; 4) the lipoprotein cholesterol was re-esterified as determined by [14C]oleate incorporation into the cellular cholesteryl esters; and 5) receptor-mediated uptake (receptor number) was lipoprotein cholesterol. An important difference between rat and human fibroblasts was the inability of human LDL to interact with the cell surface receptors of rat fibroblasts. Rat lipoproteins did, however, react with human fibroblasts. Furthermore, the rat VLDL were the most avidly bound of the rat lipoproteins to rat fibroblasts. When the direct binding of 125I-VLDL was subjected to Scatchard analysis, the very high affinity of rat VLDL was apparent (Kd = 1 X 10(-11) M). Moreover, compared with data for rat LDL, the data suggested each VLDL particle bound to four to nine lipoprotein receptors. This multiple receptor binding could explain the enhanced binding affinity of the rat VLDL. The Scatchard plot of rat 125I-VLDL revealed a biphasic binding curve in rat and human fibroblast cells and in rat smooth muscle cells, suggesting two populations of rat VLDL. These results indicate that rat cells have a receptor pathway similar to, but not identical with, the LDL pathway of human cells. Since human LDL bind poorly to rat cell receptors on cultured rat fibroblasts and smooth muscle cells, metabolic studies using human lipoproteins in rats must be interpreted cautiously.