Cyclic AMP accumulation in embryonic chick heart cells and binding of the beta-adrenergic antagonist 125I-pindolol to intact cells has been examined during the first 30 min of (-)-isoproterenol-induced desensitization. Myocardial beta-adrenergic receptors exist in two states which bind agonists with high (KD congruent to 10 nM) and low (KD congruent to 10 microM) affinities. Both activation and desensitization of cyclic AMP accumulation were mediated by (-)-isoproterenol binding to high affinity receptors. (-)-Isoproterenol-induced desensitization of cyclic AMP accumulation occurred with a t1/2 of 3.8 min. Desensitization was accompanied by a decrease in the number of 125I-pindolol binding sites assessed by equilibrium radioligand binding assays conducted at 4 degrees C or short (80 s) binding assays conducted at 37 degrees C. There was an excellent temporal correlation between loss of binding and loss of (-)-isoproterenol-stimulated cyclic AMP accumulation. After (-)-isoproterenol-induced desensitization, most of the remaining receptors assayed at 4 degrees C bound (-)-isoproterenol with high affinity. A rapid (-)-isoproterenol-induced decrease in the number of 125I-pindolol binding sites also occurred in adult canine heart cells and rat adipocytes. The data suggest that agonists do not cause uncoupling of surface receptors. Receptors may be uncoupled as a consequence of rapid sequestration into a hydrophobic compartment.