Binding of 125I-labelled human recombinant DNA interferons (IFNs) alpha-2, beta and gamma was compared on various human lymphoid cells and embryonic fibroblasts. While binding constants were within an order of magnitude for all three interferons (10(-10) to 10(-9) M), no competition was observed between IFN-gamma on the one hand and IFN-alpha 2 and IFN-beta on the other. However, consistent with previous reports, IFN-alpha 2 and IFN-beta competed for presumably common receptors. Depending on the cell type, binding sites for IFN-gamma were expressed in different numbers compared to those for IFN-alpha 2 and IFN-beta. These direct comparative binding studies support the hypothesis that the receptor system for IFN-gamma is unrelated to the IFN-alpha/beta system.