We have characterized the changes in intrinsic fluorescence that the insulin receptor undergoes upon ligand binding and autophosphorylation. The binding of insulin to its receptor results in an increase in the receptor's fluorescence intensity, emission energy and anisotropy. We monitored the time course of the anisotropy change, and these data, coupled with studies monitoring the energy transfer from insulin receptor tryptophan donors to a fluorescent-labeled insulin, allowed us to conclude that the change in anisotropy is due to a conformational change in the receptor induced by hormone binding. Since insulin association is very fast, the time course also allowed us to estimate the slower rate of formation of this conformationally-altered state. The time course of receptor autophosphorylation was measured under similar conditions and was found to be similar to the ligand-induced anisotropy time course. The simultaneous use of two fluorescent-labeled insulin analogs also allowed us to assess the maximum distance between the two hormones bound to the receptor. Addition of ATP produces a large, seemingly instantaneous increase in anisotropy. Our observation that ATP binds to the insulin receptor in the presence and absence of insulin supports the idea that the conformational change produced by insulin binding increases the rate of autophosphorylation rather than increases ATP affinity. A suggested model for these changes is presented.