Overexpression of urokinase-type plasminogen activator and its receptor correlates with metastatic capacity in breast cancer. In this study we show that the urokinase/urokinase receptor-overexpressing, metastatic human breast cancer cell line MDA-MB-231 (1) bound significantly more cell-surface plasminogen in a lysine-dependent manner and (2) was capable of generating large amounts of plasmin compared with the non-metastatic cell lines MCF-7 and T-47D. In addition, distinct plasminogen binding proteins were detected in the plasma membranes of the cell lines, suggesting heterogeneity of binding proteins. Plasminogen binding was analysed using a combination of dual-colour fluorescence flow cytometry and ligand histochemistry (for comparative and cellular localization of ligand binding), and fluorimetry (for Scatchard analysis). Apart from revealing the greater plasminogen binding capacity of MDA-MB-231 cells, flow cytometry and histochemistry also revealed that, in all three cell lines, non-viable or permeabilized cells bound significantly more plasminogen in a lysine-dependent manner than viable or non-permeabilized cells. Viable MDA-MB-231 cells bound plasminogen with moderate affinity and high capacity (Kd = 1.8 microM, receptor sites per cell 5.0 x 10(7). Our results indicate that differences in cell surface-specific plasminogen binding capacity between cell lines may not be detectable with binding techniques that cannot distinguish between viable and non-viable cells.