Rat liver ferritin is an effective donor of iron to rat hepatocytes. Uptake of iron from ferritin by the cells is partially inhibited by including apotransferrin in the culture medium, but not by inclusion of diferric transferrin. This inhibition is dependent on the concentration of apotransferrin, with a 30% depression in iron incorporation in the cells detected at apotransferrin concentrations above 40 micrograms/ml. However, apotransferrin does not interfere with uptake of 125I-labeled ferritin, suggesting that apotransferrin decreases retention of iron taken up from ferritin by hepatocytes by sequestering a portion of released iron before it has entered the metabolic pathway of the cells. The iron chelators desferrioxamine (100 microM), citrate (10 mM) and diethylenetriaminepentaacetate (100 microM) reduce iron uptake by the cells by 35, 25 and 8%, respectively. In contrast, 1 mM ascorbate increases iron accumulation by 20%. At a subtoxic concentration of 100 microM, chloroquine depresses ferritin and iron uptake by hepatocytes by more than 50% after 3 h incubation. Chloroquine presumably acts by retarding lysosomal degradation of ferritin and recycling of ferritin receptors.