Mechanisms of phagocytosis are complex and incompletely understood. The retinal pigment epithelium provides an ideal system to study the specific aspects of phagocytosis since an important function of this cell is the ingestion of packets of membranous discs that are normally discarded at the apical ends of rod and cone cells during outer segment renewal. Here we provide evidence that rod outer segment phagocytosis by retinal pigment epithelium is mediated by CD36, a transmembrane glycoprotein which has been previously characterized on hematopoietic cells as a receptor for apoptotic neutrophils and oxidized low density lipoprotein. Immunocytochemical staining with monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies demonstrated CD36 expression by both human and rat retinal pigment epithelium in transverse cryostat sections of normal retina and in primary cultured cells. By western blot analysis of retinal pigment epithelial cell lysates, polyclonal and monoclonal antibodies to CD36 recognized an 88 kDa protein which comigrated with platelet CD36. Furthermore, the synthesis of CD36 mRNA by retinal pigment epithelium was confirmed by reverse transcriptase-PCR using specific CD36 oligonucleotides. The addition of CD36 antibodies to cultured retinal pigment epithelial cells reduced the binding and internalization of 125I-labeled rod outer segments by 60%. Immunofluorescence confocal microscopy confirmed that outer segment uptake was significantly diminished by an antibody to CD36. Moreover, we found that transfection of a human melanoma cell line with CD36 cDNA enabled these cells to bind and internalize isolated photoreceptor outer segments as seen by double immunofluorescent staining for surface bound and total cell-associated rod outer segments, and by measurement of cell-associated 125I-labeled rod outer segments. We conclude that the multifunctional scavenger receptor CD36 participates in the clearance of photoreceptor outer segments by retinal pigment epithelium and thus, participates in the visual process.