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We examined the extent of EGF consumption by EGFR in A431 cells. When 125I-EGF was added to A431 cell cultures at low or high density, at concentrations which corresponded to 10-fold excess of ligand over receptor on the cell surface, most of the 125I-EGF was consumed within 2 h. The amounts of 125I-EGF consumed were much greater than available EGFR on the A431 cells, by a factor of 6.5 in low-density cultures and 5.8 in high-density cultures. When the concentration of 125I-EGF was increased in low density cultures, further consumption of 125I-EGF by the A431 cells was greatly reduced, partially due to a rapid down regulation of EGFR. However, when higher concentrations of 125I-EGF were added to high density cultures, with reduced receptor down regulation, the cells continued to consume a large fraction of the EGF in the culture medium. The consumption of 125I-EGF by these cultures was in excellent agreement with the measured amount of ligand internalized into the cell. EGF consumption was far in excess of the number of EGFR down regulated or degraded. Only a minor portion of the EGFR could have been replaced during the assay period by synthesis of new EGFR or from the intracellular pool of EGFR, and the fluid-phase uptake of EGF is only temporarily increased by exposure to EGF. Our results demonstrate that EGFR in high density A431 cell cultures recycled many times. The apparent level of recycling was dependent upon the concentration of EGF and followed Michaelis-Menton kinetics for ligand concentrations as high as 215 nM. At this EGF concentration, high-density cultures consumed 45 EGF molecules per receptor over a period of 6 h.