The P2X7 receptor is widely recognized to mediate the proinflammatory effects of extracellular ATP. However this receptor in the absence of ATP may have a function unrelated to inflammation. Our data show that P2X7 expressed on the surface of monocyte/macrophages or on epithelial HEK-293 cells greatly augments the engulfment of latex beads and live and heat-killed bacteria by effector phagocyte in the absence of ATP and serum. The expression of P2X7 on the effector also confers the ability to phagocytose apoptotic target cells and an accumulation of P2X7 can be seen at the attachment point to the target. Activation of the P2X7 receptor by ATP causes a slow dissociation (over 10-15 min) of nonmuscle myosin from the P2X7 membrane complex and abolishes further P2X7-mediated phagocytosis of these targets. The recent crystal structure of the homologous zebrafish P2X4 receptor shows an exposed "nose" of the ectodomain (residues 115-162) which contains three of the five disulfide bonds conserved in all P2X receptors. Three short biotin-labeled peptides mimicking sequence of this exposed region bound to apoptotic target cells but not to either viable cells or to other target particles. All three peptides contained one or two cysteine residues and their replacement by alanine abolished peptide binding. These data implicate thiol-disulfide exchange reactions in the initial tethering of apoptotic cells to macrophage and establish P2X7 as one of the scavenger receptors involved in the recognition and removal of apoptotic cells in the absence of extracellular ATP and serum.