The tumor promoting phorbol diesters elicit a variety of responses from normal and leukemic blood cells in vitro by apparently interacting with cellular receptors. The biologically active ligand [20-3H] phorbol 12,13-dibutyrate ([3H]PDBu) bound specifically to intact human lymphocytes, monocytes, polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMN), and platelets, but not to erythrocytes. Binding, which was comparable for all four blood cell types, occurred rapidly at 23° and 37°C, reaching a maximum by 20-30 min usually followed by a 30-40% decrease in cell associated radioactivity over the next 30-60 min. The time course for binding was temperature dependent with equilibrium binding occurring after 120-150 min at 4°C, with no subsequent loss of cell-associated radioactivity at this temperature. Bound [3H]PDBu could be eluted by addition of unlabeled PDBu. Scatchard analysis of data from 4°C binding studies revealed linear plots with high affinity receptors in these cell types with dissociation constants and receptors per cell of 60 nM and 7.8 × 105/cell for lymphocytes, 51 nM and 15.5 × 105/cell for monocytes, 38 nM and 4.0 × 105/cell for PMN, and 19 nM and 2.9 × 104/cell for platelets. Structure-activity studies using unlabeled phorbol-related compounds demonstrated a close correlation between their abilities to inhibit binding of [3H]PDBu to cells and their abilities to induce cellular responses (monocyte and PMN H2O2 secretion, lymphocyte 3HTdR incorporation, and platelet tritiated serotonin release); phorbol and 4-alpha phorbol were inactive while phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA), PDBu, mezerein, and phorbol 12,13-diacetate (in decreasing order of potency) inhibited [3H]PDBu binding and elicited the various responses. Thus, these high affinity, specific receptors for the phorbol diesters, present on monocytes, lymphocytes, PMN, and platelets, mediate the pleiotypic effects induced by these ligands.