Peptide ligands bind the CRF(1) receptor by a two-domain mechanism the ligand's carboxyl-terminal portion binds the receptor's extracellular N-terminal domain (N-domain) and the ligand's amino-terminal portion binds the receptor's juxtamembrane domain (J-domain). Little quantitative information is available regarding this mechanism. Specifically, the microaffinity of the two interactions and their contribution to overall ligand affinity are largely undetermined. Here we measured ligand interaction with N- and J-domains expressed independently, the former (residues 1-118) fused to the activin IIB receptor's membrane-spanning alpha-helix (CRF(1)-N) and the latter comprising residues 110-415 (CRF(1)-J). We also investigated the effect of nonpeptide antagonist and G-protein on ligand affinity for N- and J-domains. Peptide agonist affinity for CRF(1)-N was only 1.1-3.5-fold lower than affinity for the whole receptor (CRF(1)-R), suggesting the N-domain predominantly contributes to peptide agonist affinity. Agonist interaction with CRF(1)-J (potency for stimulating cAMP accumulation) was 12000-1500000-fold weaker than with CRF(1)-R, indicating very weak direct agonist interaction with the J-domain. Nonpeptide antagonist affinity for CRF(1)-J and CRF(1)-R was indistinguishable, indicating the compounds bind predominantly the J-domain. Agonist activation of CRF(1)-J was fully blocked by nonpeptide antagonist, suggesting antagonism results from inhibition of agonist-J-domain interaction. G-protein coupling with CRF(1)-R (forming RG) increased peptide agonist affinity 92-1300-fold, likely resulting from enhanced agonist interaction with the J-domain rather than the N-domain. Nonpeptide antagonists, which bind the J-domain, blocked peptide agonist binding to RG, and binding of peptide antagonists, predominantly to the N-domain, was unaffected by R-G coupling. These findings extend the two-domain model quantitatively and are consistent with a simple equilibrium model of the two-domain mechanism (1) The N-domain binds peptide agonist with moderate-to-high microaffinity, substantially increasing the local concentration of agonist and so allowing weak agonist-J-domain interaction. (2) Agonist-J-domain interaction is allosterically enhanced by receptor-G-protein interaction and inhibited by nonpeptide antagonist.