The clustering of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (AChRs) is one of the first events observed during formation of the neuromuscular junction. To determine the mechanism involved in AChR clustering, we established a nonmuscle cell line (mouse fibroblast L cells) that stably expresses just one muscle-specific gene product, the AChR. We have shown that when Torpedo californica AChRs are expressed in fibroblasts, their immunological, biochemical, and electrophysiological properties all indicate that fully functional cell surface AChRs are produced. In the present study, the cell surface distribution and stability of Torpedo AChRs expressed in fibroblasts (AChR-fibroblasts) were analyzed and shown to be similar to nonclustered AChRs expressed in muscle cells. AChR-fibroblasts incubated with antibodies directed against the AChR induced the formation of small AChR microclusters (less than 0.5 micron 2) and caused an increase in the internalization rate and degradation of surface AChRs (antigenic modulation) in a manner similar to that observed in muscle cells. Two disparate sources of AChR clustering factors, extracellular matrix isolated from Torpedo electric organ and conditioned media from a rodent neuroblastoma-glioma hybrid cell line, each induced large (1-3 microns 2), stable AChR clusters with no change in the level of surface AChR expression. By exploiting the temperature-sensitive nature of Torpedo AChR assembly, we were able to demonstrate that factor-induced clusters were produced by mobilization of preexisting surface AChRs, not by directed insertion of newly synthesized AChRs. AChR clusters were never observed in the absence of extracellular synaptic factors. Our results suggest that these factors can interact directly with the AChR.