The inhibition of receptor binding of [3H]phorbol-12,13-dibutyrate (PDBu) by a factor from human serum was characterized. The serum factor inhibited [3H]PDBu binding in intact monolayer cultures of the rat embryo cell line CREF N and in a subcellular system containing membranes from these cells. Inhibition occurred at both 37 and 4 degrees C and was rapid and reversible. An analysis of [3H]PDBu binding in the presence of the serum factor indicated that inhibition of [3H]PDBu binding by the serum factor was noncompetitive. Using gel filtration to separate the serum factor from free [3H]PDBu, we obtained evidence that the serum factor does not act by binding or trapping the [3H]PDBu. Unlike the phorbol ester tumor promoters, the serum factor alone did not stimulate the release of choline or arachidonic acid from cellular phospholipids, nor did it inhibit the binding of 125I-labeled epidermal growth factor to cellular receptors. The factor did, however, antagonize the inhibition of epidermal growth factor binding induced by PDBu. Sera from pregnant women were, in general, more inhibitory of [3H]PDBu binding than were those from nonpregnant women, which were more inhibitory than those from men. During these studies we found that CREF N cells responded to being grown in the presence of PDBu by partial down regulation of the phorboid receptor. The 50% effective dose for down regulation was 8 nM PDBu, and the maximum effect occurred after 6 h. Taken together, our results indicate that the serum factor inhibits [3H]PDBu binding by a direct physical effect at the level of the phorboid receptors or their associated membranes. It would appear that if this factor acts in vivo, then it might antagonize certain effects of this class of tumor promoters.