The in vitro phagocytosis of viable Treponema pallidum subsp. pallidum by isolated rat Kupffer cells, studied by immunofluorescence staining of Kupffer cells-associated bacteria, showed that ingestion of live, unopsonized treponemes was slow: in fact, Kupffer cells started to be positive 1 h after infection, when only 4% of the cells presented small round fluorescent inclusion-like bodies. Thereafter, the number of positive cells progressively increased with time: 7%, 17%, 36%, and 69% of Kupffer cells were positive, respectively, 2, 4, 6 and 8 h after infection. Opsonization of T. pallidum with human immune serum did not substantially modify the percentage (8%) of Kupffer cells ingesting T. pallidum 1 h after infection, whereas opsonization significantly ( P<0.01) increased phagocytosis after 2, 4 and 6 h of incubation, when 44%, 58%, and 68% of Kupffer cells were positive, respectively. At 8 h after infection of Kupffer cells by opsonized T. pallidum, 75% of the cells were positive by immunofluorescence. Heat-inactivation of T. pallidum slightly enhanced phagocytosis. In contrast, opsonization of heat-inactivated spirochetes with specific antibodies significantly ( P<0.01) increased the phagocytosis of bacteria by Kupffer cells, beginning as early as 30 min after infection, when 65% of the cells were positive by immunofluorescence. The reactive oxygen species (ROS) production by Kupffer cells following incubation with spirochetes was also determined by chemiluminescence. Treponemes induced an oxidative burst in Kupffer cells in a dose-dependent manner and the generation of ROS was already detectable 20 min after the exposure of the Kupffer cells to treponemes and peaked at 35 min of incubation. Live, as well as live and opsonized, and heat-inactivated treponemes, induced an O(2)(-) production lower than that induced by heat-inactivated and opsonized spirochetes.