We have employed a direct radiolabel binding assay to investigate the interaction between3H-heparin and recombinant envelope glycoproteins, rgp120s, derived from several different isolates of HIV-1. Comparable dose-dependent binding is exhibited by rgp120s from isolates IIIB, GB8, MN and SF-2. Under identical experimental conditions the binding of3H-heparin to a recombinant soluble form of the cellular receptor for gp120, CD4, is negligible. The binding of3H-heparin to rgp120 is competed for by excess unlabeled heparin and certain other, but not all, glycosaminoglycan and chemically modified heparins. Of a range of such polysaccharides tested, ability to compete with3H-heparin for binding was strictly correlated with inhibition of HIV-1 replication in vitro. Those possessing potent anti-HIV-1 activity were effective competitors, whereas those having no or little anti-HIV-1 activity were poor competitors. Scatchard analysis indicates that the K d of the interaction between heparin and rgp120 is 10 nM. Binding studies conducted in increasing salt concentrations confirm that the interaction is ionic in nature. Synthetic 33-35 amino acid peptides based on the sequence of the V3 loop of gp120 also bind to heparin with high affinity. V3 loop peptides that are cyclized due to terminal cysteine residues show more selective binding than their uncyclized counterparts. Overall, these data demonstrate further that heparin exerts its anti-HIV-1 activity by binding to the envelope glycoprotein of HIV-1, rather than its cellular receptor, CD4. This study confirms that the V3 loop of gp120 is the site at which heparin exerts its anti-HIV-1 activity. Moreover, it reveals that high affinity binding to heparin is shared by all four rgp120s examined, despite amino acid substitutions within the V3 loop.