Scatchard analyses of the binding of transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) to a wide variety of different cell types in culture revealed the universal presence of high affinity (Kd = 1-60 pM) receptors for TGF-beta on every cell type assayed, indicating a wide potential target range for TGF-beta action. There was a strong (r = +0.85) inverse relationship between the receptor affinity and the number of receptors expressed per cell, such that at low TGF-beta concentrations, essentially all cells bound a similar number of TGF-beta molecules per cell. The binding of TGF-beta to various cell types was not altered by many agents that affect the cellular response to TGF-beta, suggesting that modulation of TGF-beta binding to its receptor may not be a primary control mechanism in TGF-beta action. Similarly, in vitro transformation resulted in only relatively small changes in the cellular binding of TGF-beta, and for those cell types that exhibited ligand-induced down-regulation of the receptor, down-regulation was not extensive. Thus the strong conservation of binding observed between cell types is also seen within a given cell type under a variety of conditions, and receptor expression appears to be essentially constitutive. Finally, the biologically inactive form of TGF-beta, which constitutes greater than 98% of autocrine TGF-beta secreted by all of the twelve different cell types assayed, was shown to be unable to bind to the receptor without prior activation in vitro. It is proposed that this may prevent premature interaction of autocrine ligand and receptor in the Golgi apparatus.