We undertook this study to determine whether the microglia, the resident macrophages of the central nervous system, turn over in the steady-state. The turnover of brain macrophages would lend support to the "Trojan Horse" hypothesis of central nervous system infection, since one origin of replacement cells is the circulating monocyte pool. We combined the immunohistochemical detection of F4/80, a specific macrophage marker, with [3H]thymidine incorporation and autoradiography in normal adult mice. We could detect double-labelled cells in the brains of mice perfused 60 min after isotope administration. Such cells were few in number, randomly scattered throughout the brain and had the morphology of typical resident cells. The labelling index at this survival time was 0.052 +/- 0.003%. Thus resident microglia can synthesise DNA in situ. After longer survival times, we detected larger numbers of double-labelled cells. F4/80+ cells with resident morphology, mitotic figures, pairs of closely apposed (daughter) cells and cells with rounded macrophage-like morphology, all exhibited silver labelling. Twenty-four hours after isotope administration the labelling index was 0.192 +/- 0.052%. From morphologic evidence and comparison of labelling indices at different survival times, we concluded that: (i) resident microglia can synthesise DNA and go on to divide in situ; (ii) cells are recruited from the circulating monocyte pool through an intact blood-brain barrier and rapidly differentiate into resident microglia. We estimate that the two processes contribute almost equally to the steady-state turnover of resident microglia.