We examined the nature of the tetanus toxin receptor in primary cultures of mouse spinal cord by ligand blotting techniques. Membrane components were separated by sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis and transferred to nitrocellulose sheets, which were overlaid with 125I-labeled tetanus toxin. The toxin bound only to material at or near the dye front, which was lost when the cells were delipidated before electrophoresis. Gangliosides purified from the lipid extract were separated by thin-layer chromatography and the chromatogram was overlaid with 125I-toxin. The toxin bound to gangliosides corresponding to GD1b and GT1b. Similar results were obtained with brain membranes; thus, gangliosides rather than glycoproteins appear to be the toxin receptors both in vivo and in neuronal cell cultures. To follow the fate of tetanus toxin bound to cultured neurons, we developed an assay to measure cell-surface and internalized toxin. Cells were incubated with tetanus toxin at 0 degree C, washed, and sequentially exposed to antitoxin and 125I-labeled protein A. Using this assay, we found that much of the toxin initially bound to cell surface disappeared rapidly when the temperature was raised to 37 degrees C but not when the cells were kept at 0 degree C. Some of the toxin was internalized and could only be detected by our treating the cells with Triton X-100 before adding anti-toxin. Experiments with 125I-tetanus toxin showed that a substantial amount of the toxin bound at 0 degree C dissociated into the medium upon warming of the cells. Using immunofluorescence, we confirmed that some of the bound toxin was internalized within 15 min and accumulated in discrete structures. These structures did not appear to be lysosomes, as the cell-associated toxin had a long half-life and 90% of the radioactivity released into the medium was precipitated by trichloroacetic acid. The rapid internalization of tetanus toxin into a subcellular compartment where it escapes degradation may be important for its mechanism of action.