The binding of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) to the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) elicits a sequence of poorly defined molecular events that ultimately yield a heteromeric transformed AhR that is active as a transcription factor. We have previously developed a model of the ligand-initiated transformation of the AhR to the DNA-binding state based on characterization of several forms of the AhR with respect to their physicochemical properties and DNA-binding affinities. The present studies were designed to determine whether, and at what stage, this process of transformation alters the receptor's affinity for TCDD. In rat hepatic cytosol, approx. 10% of the TCDD specifically bound to the AhR rapidly dissociated (t1/2 approximately 1 h), while the remainder was only slowly dissociable (t1/2 approximately 70 h). The isolated DNA-binding forms of the receptor (monomeric and transformed) bound TCDD very tightly (t1/2 > 100 h), whereas TCDD was dissociable from the non-DNA-binding receptor form(s). A lower incubation temperature (0-4 degrees C) and the presence of molybdate partially stabilized the non-DNA-binding fraction of the TCDD.receptor complex and also enhanced TCDD dissociation in crude cytosol. Immunoprecipitation of the different AhR forms with an anti-AhR antibody and immunoblotting with antibody to the 90 kDa heat-shock protein (hsp90) demonstrated that hsp90 was associated with the unoccupied receptor complex as well as with a fraction of the non-DNA-binding TCDD.receptor complex; isolated DNA-binding forms did not contain detectable hsp90. We conclude that while hsp90 remains associated with the AhR, TCDD is readily dissociable; following release of hsp90, however, TCDD becomes very tightly bound, and remains so upon completion of transformation.