Digestion of methylamine-treated alpha 2-macroglobulin (alpha 2M X MA) with catalytic amounts of papain at pH 4.5 has been investigated. Cleavage of Lys(1313)-Glu resulted in two major products, which could be separated by gel chromatography: a large disulfide bridged fragment set nearly the size of intact alpha 2M X MA, and an 18 kDa fragment, constituting the carboxy-terminal domain of alpha 2M. This domain contained the receptor recognition site, exposed as a result of cleavage of the internal beta-cysteinyl-gamma-glutamyl thiol esters in alpha 2M. Compared with alpha 2M-trypsin complex the apparent affinity for binding to rat hepatocyte receptors was 0.1 and 2% at 4 and 37 degrees C, respectively. The receptor-binding domain presumably forms a compact globular beta-barrel-type structure, stable at pH 2.5-9.0. Chemical modification experiments suggest that receptor binding is contributed by a determinant formed by the precise folding of the polypeptide chain.