We studied binding and degradation of labeled platelet thrombospondin (TSP) by normal and variant bovine aorta endothelial (BAE) cells. [125I]-labeled TSP bound to cells at 37 degrees C in a specific, saturable, and time-dependent fashion. Incubation of cell monolayers with fluoresceinated TSP resulted in punctate cellular staining, but no staining of the extracellular matrix. Heparin, fucoidan, chondroitin sulfate, platelet factor 4, beta-thromboglobulin, unlabeled TSP, and serum derived from whole blood all competed for binding of [125I]TSP. [125I]TSP was degraded to TCA-soluble radioactivity, which appeared in the medium after a 60-90-min lag. Degradation was inhibited to the same extent as binding by increasing concentrations of heparin, fucoidan, platelet factor 4, or whole blood serum. Normal BAE cells bound and degraded less [125I]TSP than variant BAE cells. The dissociation constants (Kds) for binding and the constants for degradation (Kms) for degradation by the two cell strains, however, were similar (30-50 nM). The inhibitory effects of heparin and platelet factor 4 were lost when the two inhibitors were present in a 1:1 (wt/wt) ratio. Treatment of suspended cells with trypsin or heparitinase caused less binding of TSP. These results indicate that there is a specific receptor for TSP on endothelial cells which mediates binding and degradation. This receptor may be a heparan sulfate proteoglycan.