Albumin-dependent uptake of unbound [3H]palmitic acid by hepatocytes isolated from female rat livers was studied and the experimental results compared with the predictions of a noncompartmental diffusion-reaction theory for the cellular uptake of protein-bound ligands. The outright theoretical predictions involve values for the parameters of the system, some newly measured (hepatocyte radii and the rate constant for the dissociation of palmitate-albumin complex) and some taken from the literature (diffusion coefficients and the equilibrium association constant for the palmitate-albumin complex). The measured unbound clearance of [3H]palmitic acid, defined as the initial uptake velocity divided by the unbound [3H]palmitic acid concentration in the medium, was enhanced 6.6-fold as the concentration of human serum albumin was increased from approximately 5 to 480 microM. This enhancement factor was predicted by the theory, according to which the enhancement reflects codiffusion of bound ligand across the unstirred layer adjacent to the cell membrane and, therefore, an increased delivery of unbound ligand to the cell surface. In contrast, the absolute magnitude of the unbound clearance was consistent with the theory only for the lowest published value for the equilibrium association constant, 15 microM-1. For higher published values (62 and 94 microM-1), the magnitude of the unbound clearance observed experimentally was severalfold higher than that predicted by the theory. If in fact the association constant exceeds 30 microM-1, the data would imply that an albumin-dependent facilitation mechanism exists which enhances the availability of palmitate to the cell over and above the enhancement predicted by the diffusion-reaction theory.