Isolated human fibroblast plasma membranes that were attached by their extracellular surface to a solid substratum contained numerous clathrin coated pits that could be removed with a high pH buffer (Moore, M.S., D.T. Mahaffey, F.M. Brodsky, and R.G.W. Anderson. 1987. Science [Wash. DC]. 236:558-563). When these membranes were incubated with coat proteins extracted from purified bovine coated vesicles, new coated pits formed that were indistinguishable from native coated pits. Assembly was dependent on the concentration of coat protein with half maximal assembly occurring at 7 micrograms/ml. Assembly was only slightly affected by the presence of divalent cations. Whereas normal appearing lattices formed in a low ionic strength buffer, when assembly was carried out in a low pH buffer, few coated pits were evident but numerous small clathrin cages decorated the membrane. Coated pits did not form randomly on the surface; instead, they assembled at differentiated regions of membrane that could be distinguished in carbon/platinum replicas of frozen and etched membranes by the presence of numerous particles clustered into patches the size and shape of a coated pit.