A 37-kDa corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) binding protein (CRF-BP) was purified from human plasma by repeated affinity purification and subsequently sequenced and cloned. The human and rat CRF-BP cDNAs encode proteins of 322 amino acids with one putative signal sequence, one N-glycosylation site, and 10 conserved cysteines. Human CRF-BP binds human CRF with high affinity but has low affinity for the ovine peptide. In contrast, sheep CRF-BP binds human and ovine CRF with high affinity. The CRF-BP gene consists of seven exons and six introns and is located on chromosome 13 and loci 5q of the mouse and human genomes, respectively. CRF-BP inhibits the adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) releasing properties of CRF in vitro. CRF-BP dimerizes after binding CRF and clears the peptide from blood. This clearance mechanism protects the maternal pituitary gland from elevated plasma CRF levels found during the third trimester of human pregnancy. CRF-BP is expressed in the brains of all species so far tested but is uniquely expressed in human liver and placenta. In brain, CRF-BP is membrane associated and is predominantly expressed in the cerebral cortex and subcortical limbic structures. In some brain areas CRF-BP colocalizes with CRF and CRF receptors. The protein is also present in pituitary corticotropes, where it is under positive glucocorticoid control, and is likely to locally modulate CRF-induced ACTH secretion. The ligand requirements of the CRF receptor and the CRF-BP can be distinguished in that central human CRF fragments, such as CRF (6-33) and CRF (9-33), have high affinity for CRF-BP but low affinity for the CRF receptor. The binding protein's ability to inhibit CRF-induced ACTH secretion can be reversed by CRF (6-33) and CRF (9-33), suggesting that ligand inhibitors may have utility in elevating free CRF levels in disease states associated with decreased CRF. Thus, by controlling the amount of free CRF which activates CRF receptors, it is likely that the CRF-BP is an important modulator of CRF both in the CNS and in the periphery.