Esterification of all-trans-retinol is a key reaction of the vertebrate visual cycle, since it produces an insoluble, relatively non-toxic, form of the vitamin for storage and supplies substrate for the isomerization reaction. CoA-dependent and -independent pathways have been described for retinol esterification in retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). The CoA-independent reaction, catalysed by lecithin:retinol acyltransferase (LRAT) was examined in more detail in this study. Addition of retinol to RPE microsomes results in a burst of retinyl ester synthesis, followed by a rapid apparent cessation of the reaction. However, [3H]retinol, added when retinyl ester synthesis has apparently ceased, is rapidly incorporated into retinyl ester without a net increase in the amount of ester. The specific radioactivities of [3H]retinol and [3H]retinyl ester reach the same value. [14C]Palmitate from palmitoyl-CoA is incorporated into preexisting retinyl ester in the absence of net ester synthesis, too. These exchange reactions suggest that the reaction has reached equilibrium at the plateau of the progress curve and that only the accumulation of retinyl ester, and not its synthesis, has stopped during this phase of the reaction. Studies with geometrical isomers of retinol revealed that the rate of exchange of all-trans-retinol with all-trans-retinyl esters was about 6 times more rapid than exchange of 11-cis-retinol with 11-cis-retinyl ester. This is the first demonstration of the reversibility of LRAT and the first example of stereospecificity of retinyl ester synthesis in the visual system. Reversal of the LRAT reaction could contribute to the mobilization of 11-cis-retinol from 11-cis-retinyl ester pools.