Chimeric human/chicken transferrin receptors have been constructed using the polymerase chain reaction. Different regions of the 671-residue external domain of the human transferrin receptor were replaced by the corresponding sequences from the chicken transferrin receptor. As chicken transferrin receptors do not bind human transferrin, functional analysis of such chimeric receptors provides an approach to define the ligand-binding site of the human transferrin receptor. Four of 16 chimeric human/chicken transferrin receptors expressed in chick embryo fibroblasts were efficiently transported to the plasma membrane and displayed on the cell surface. Studies of the four chimeric receptors indicated that binding of human transferrin was abolished if the carboxy terminal 192 amino acids of the human transferrin receptor (residues 569-760) were replaced with the corresponding region from the chicken transferrin receptor. Further, a chimeric receptor in which the carboxy-terminal 72 residues were derived from the chicken transferrin receptor exhibited a 16-fold decrease in binding affinity for human transferrin. In contrast, analysis of the other two chimeric receptors showed that 340 amino acids of the human transferrin receptor external domain more proximal to the transmembrane region (residues 151-490) could be replaced with the corresponding region from the chicken transferrin receptor without loss of high-affinity ligand binding. In contrast, two mAbs against the human transferrin receptor external domain, B3/25 and D65.3, that do not compete with transferrin binding, do not bind the chimeric transferrin receptors in which the membrane proximal part is replaced by chicken sequences, while they do bind the two other chimeric transferrin receptors with high affinity. These data indicate that sequence differences in the carboxy-terminal region of human and chicken transferrin receptor external domains are important for the species specificity of transferrin binding and imply that this portion of the human transferrin receptor is critical for ligand binding.