Human growth hormone (hGH) bound to specific sites on rat hepatocytes. The time course of hGH dissociation was comprised of more than one component. Dissociation was resolved into rapid (t1/2 = 10.5 min) and slow (t 1/2 = 6.4 h) fractions. The amount of slowly dissociable hormone increased for the first 75 min during which time cells and [125I]hGH associated. Subsequently, the amount of slowly dissociable hGH was constant. The time courses of hGH receptor binding and subsequent retention of slowly dissociable label were similar. The capacity of hepatocytes to accumulate slowly dissociable label was saturated by hGH over the same concentration range as the high-affinity binding site (KD approximately 2 nM). This suggested that a receptor-mediated process was responsible for the accumulation of slowly dissociable hGH. Rapidly dissociable label was intact [125I]hGH and fragments resulting from growth hormone degradation. Slowly dissociable hGH recovered from hepatocytes by acid extraction was intact and immunocompetent. There was a large increase in the extent of [125I]hGH degradation between 23 and 37 degrees C. Over this temperature range, the proportion of hGH not in rapid equilibrium with the medium decreased. High concentrations of hGH decreased the amount of slowly dissociable [125I]hGH retained by hepatocytes by competing for high-affinity sites. The interaction of [125I]hGH with low-affinity degradative systems was favored by the presence of hGH. The temperature and concentration dependencies of hGH retention and degradation distinguished these proceses.