Hematopoietic growth factor receptors are present on cells of normal nonhematopoietic tissues such as endothelium and placenta. We previously demonstrated functional human granulocyte-macrophage colony- stimulating factor (GM-CSF) receptors on small cell carcinoma of the lung cell lines, and others have reported that certain solid tumor cell lines respond to GM-CSF in clonogenic assays. In the current study, we examine human melanoma cell lines and fresh specimens of melanoma to determine whether they have functional GM-CSF receptors. Scatchard analyses of 125I-GM-CSF equilibrium binding to melanoma cell lines showed a mean of 542 +/- 67 sites per cell with a kd of 0.72 +/- 0.14 nmol/L. Cross-linking studies in the melanoma cell line, M14, showed a major GM-CSF receptor species of 84,000 daltons. Under the conditions tested, the M14 cells did not have a proliferative response to GM-CSF in vitro, nor was any induction of primary response genes detected by Northern analysis in response to GM-CSF. Studies to determine internal translocation of the receptor-ligand complex indicated less than 10% of the 125I-GM-CSF internalized was specifically bound to receptors. Primary melanoma cells from five surgical specimens had GM-CSF receptors; Scatchard analysis was performed on one sample, showing 555 sites/cell with a kd of 0.23 nmol/L. These results indicate that human tumor cells may express a low-affinity GM-CSF receptor protein that localizes to the cell surface and binds ligand, but lacks functional components or accessory factors needed to transduce a signal.