EGF receptor internalization, recycling,a nd downregulation were evaluated in liver parenchyma as a function of increasing doses of injected EGF. The effect of ligand occupancy in vivo on the kinetics and extent of internalization was studied with changes in the receptor content of isolated plasmalemma and endosome fractions evaluated by direct binding, Scatchard analysis, and Western blotting. For all doses of injected EGF, receptor was lost from the plasmalemma and accumulated in endosomes in a time- and dose-dependent fashion. However, at doses of injected EGF equivalent to less than or equal to 50% surface receptor occupancy (i.e., less than or equal to 1 microgram/100 g body weight), receptor levels returned by 120 min to initial values. This return was resistant to cycloheximide and therefore did not represent newly synthesized receptor. Neither was the return due to replenishment by an intracellular pool of low-affinity receptors as such a pool could not be detected by Scatchard analysis or Western blotting. Therefore, receptor return was due to the recycling of previously internalized receptor. At doses of injected EGF greater than 50% receptor occupancy, net receptor loss-i.e., downregulation-was observed by evaluating the receptor content of total particulate fractions of liver homogenates. At the higher saturating doses of injected EGF (5 and 10 micrograms/100 g body weight), the majority of surface receptor content was lost by 15 min and remained low for at least an additional 105 min. As the kinetics of ligand clearance from the circulation and liver parenchyma were similar for all doses of EGF injected, then the ligand-mediated regulation of surface receptor content and downregulation were not a result of a prolonged temporal interaction of ligand with receptor. Rather, the phenomena must be a consequence of the absolute concentrations of EGF interacting with receptor at the cell surface and/or in endosomes.