Little is known about leptin's interaction with other circulating proteins which could be important for its biological effects. Sephadex G-100 gel filtration elution profiles of 125I-leptin-serum complex demonstrated 125I-leptin eluting in significant proportion associated with macromolecules. The 125I-leptin binding to circulating macromolecules was specific, reversible, and displaceable with unlabeled leptin (ED50: 0.73 +/- 0.09 nM, mean +/- SEM, n = 3). Several putative leptin binding proteins were detected by leptin-affinity chromatography of which either 80- or 100-kD proteins could be the soluble leptin receptor as approximately 10% of the bound 125I-leptin was immunoprecipitable with leptin receptor antibodies. Significantly higher (P < 0.001) proportions of total leptin circulate in the bound form in lean (46.5 +/- 6.6%) compared with obese (21.4 +/- 3.4%) subjects. In lean subjects with 21% or less body fat, 60-98% of the total leptin was in the bound form. Short-term fasting significantly decreased basal leptin levels in three lean (P < 0.0005) and three obese (P < 0.005) subjects while refeeding restored it to basal levels. The effects of fasting on free leptin levels were more pronounced in lean subjects (basal vs. 24-h fasting: 19.6 +/- 1.9 vs. 1.3 +/- 0.4 ng/ml) compared with those in obese subjects (28.3 +/- 9.8 vs. 14.7 +/- 5.3). No significant (P > 0.05) decrease was observed in bound leptin in either group. These studies suggest that in obese individuals the majority of leptin circulates in free form, presumably bioactive protein, and thus obese subjects are resistant to free leptin. In lean subjects with relatively low adipose tissue, the majority of circulating leptin is in the bound form and thus may not be available to brain receptors for its inhibitory effects on food intake both under normal and food deprivation states.