Despite extensive study of the numerous immunoregulatory mechanisms that contribute to the 'immune-privileged'nature of the anterior chamber (AC) of the eye, little is known of the functional nature of antigen-presenting cells (APC) present in the tissues adjoining the AC. In the present study, we have compared the antigen-presenting capacity of dendritic cells (DC) and macrophages isolated from the normal rat iris. Whereas iris DC exhibited a potent ability to stimulate resting allogeneic T cells in MLR cultures (an in-vitro correlate of the ability to induce primary T cell responses), resident iris macrophages displayed negligible MLR-stimulatory capacity. Significantly, iris macrophages could efficiently elicit proliferation of primed antigen-specific T cells (an in-vitro correlate of the ability to act as local APC in secondary responses). This antigen-presenting activity was approximately half that of fully 'mature' iris DC and considerably greater than that of freshly isolated iris DC. A key contributor to the effectiveness of resident iris macrophage antigen presentation was considered to be the absence of lymphocytostatic control of T cell proliferation exerted by these cells. The results indicate dichotomous but complementary roles for DC (immune surveillance) and macrophages (local antigen presentation in secondary responses) in this tissue.