Following suggestions that transferrin present in fetal-bovine serum, a common supplement used in tissue-culture media, may not bind well to human cells, we have isolated the protein and investigated its interaction with both human and bovine cells. Bovine transferrin bound to a human cell line, K562, at 4 degrees C with a kd of 590 nM, whereas human transferrin bound with a kd of 3.57 nM, a 165-fold difference. With a bovine cell line, NBL4, bovine transferrin bound with the higher affinity, kd 9.09 nM, whereas human transferrin bound with a kd of 41.7 nM, only a 5-fold difference. These values were reflected in an 8.6-fold difference in the rate of iron delivery by the two proteins to human cells, whereas delivery to bovine cells was the same. Nevertheless, the bovine transferrin was taken up by the human cells by a specific receptor-mediated process. Human cells cultured in bovine diferric transferrin at 40 micrograms/ml, the concentration expected in the presence of 10% fetal-bovine serum, failed to thrive, whereas cells cultured in the presence of human transferrin proliferated normally. These results suggest that growth of human cells in bovine serum could give rise to a cellular iron deficiency, which may in turn lead to the selection of clones of cells adapted for survival with less iron. This has important consequences for the use of such cells as models, since they may have aberrant iron-dependent pathways and perhaps other unknown alterations in cell function.