Alveolar macrophages (AMs) are recognized as an important first line of cellular host defense within the lung. Although mechanisms underlying AM response to microorganisms or particulates are well characterized in vitro, experimental approaches to the study of AMs in vivo are limited. To circumvent these limitations, a new assay was developed using fluorescently labelled liposomes or Pneumocystis carinii (PC) organisms which were administered intratracheally into mechanically ventilated rats. After 30 min, the lungs were lavaged and the percentage of administered liposomes or PC bound to AMs was determined by quantifying fluorescence. Factors known to enhance attachment/phagocytosis by AMs in vitro were assayed to determine their effect in vivo. For example, vitronectin (VN)-coated liposomes increased attachment from 25.2 +/- 2.4% to 47.2 +/- 3.0% (p < 0.001), while addition of VN increased the binding of PC to AMs from 16.5 +/- 1.7% to 24.5 +/- 2.2% (p < 0.05). Confocal laser microscopy of cells obtained by lavage provided morphologic evidence of attachment/phagocytosis by AMs. This model will permit the quantitative assessment of the interaction of fluorescently labelled liposomes or microorganisms with AMs in the lower respiratory tract of living animals.