Phagocytosis, pinocytosis and the surface distribution of concanavalin A (ConA) have been analyzed during mitosis in several mammalian cell lines. Use of the bisbenzimidazole dye, Hoechst 33258, for chromosome staining after gentle fixation made possible the rapid identification and correlation of mitotic phase with surface properties. Phagocytosis of both opsonized and nonopsonized particles is markedly depressed in mitotic cells of the mouse macrophage cell line J774.1. The uptake of opsonized particles (IgG-coated erythrocytes) is impaired from early prophase through early G1, whereas phagocytosis of nonopsonized particles (latex beads) is restored by telophase. Fluid pinocytosis, determined by the uptake of soluble horseradish peroxidase, is also inhibited during mitosis. Thus peroxidase-containing cytoplasmic vesicles were virtually absent from mid-prophase through telophase in both J774 and Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells. Adsorptive pinocytosis of ConA was determined from the different distributions of fluorescence in single cells incubated at 37 degrees C with rhodamine-conjugated ConA (surface and cytoplasmic label), then fixed and further incubated with fluorescein-conjugated anti-ConA (surface only). The separate fluorescence of Hoechst, fluorescein and rhodamine could be optically isolated. In interphase J774 cells, ConA is rapidly internalized into cytoplasmic vesicles. In contrast, ConA is restricted to the plasma membrane from mid-prophase through telophase. In CHO, the depressed pattern of internalization is not fully established until metaphse. The surface distribution of ConA also varied dramatically as a function of mitotic phase. Between mid-prophase and early anaphase, the pattern of surface ConA-receptor complexes is diffuse. Once the cleavage furrow begins to develop, however, ConA moves into the region of the furrow. This was shown in J774, CHO and 3T3 mouse embryonic fibroblasts, and is probably universal. ConA movement into the membrane that overlies the microfilaments of the contractile ring is analogous to similar movements that occur in interphase cells during ConA cap formation and during the development of phagocytic pseudopods. The analogy emphasizes the common functional consequences of microfilament-membrane organization. It is evident that membrane processes which depend upon endocytosis--for example, certain hormone-induced signals--may be interrupted during mitosis. Inhibition of endocytosis thus may be a significant element in the control of cellular activities during mitosis and a strong influence on the properties of the emergent post-mitotic cell.