The ability of interphotoreceptor retinoid-binding protein (IRBP) to facilitate the incorporation of retinol into retinyl esters by the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) was examined in toad (Bufo marinus) eyecup preparations devoid of neural retina (RPE-eyecup). Solutions containing purified bovine IRBP and all-trans[3H]retinol were introduced into the vitreal cavity of the RPE-eyecup. After incubation at 22 degrees C, [3H]retinyl ester was extracted from the RPE cells and isolated by high performance liquid chromatography. All-trans[3H]retinyl ester formed in the RPE increased with time of incubation (up to 2 hr) and with concentration of IRBP (up to 10 microM). The increase with IRBP concentration accompanied, and presumably resulted from, an increased transfer of [3H]retinol to the RPE-eyecup. With higher concentration of IRBP (20-30 microM), both the amount of [3H]retinyl ester formed (relative to the peak value at 10 microM IRBP) and the overall molar content of endogenous retinyl ester were reduced. On the other hand, bovine serum albumin at relatively high concentration (90 microM) was less effective than 3 microM IRBP in supporting the formation of [3H]retinyl ester, and it did not reduce the level of native retinyl ester in the RPE. Using 3 microM IRBP, levels of [3H]retinyl ester formed were comparable to or exceeded those obtained with phosphatidyl choline (0.9 mg ml-1) or serum retinol-binding protein (3 microM). The data are consistent with the hypothesized role of IRBP as a carrier of retinol between the retina and RPE in the operation of the visual cycle.