The toxic effects of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) on bovine retinal capillary pericytes (BRP) and endothelial cells (BREC) were studied. AGE-modified bovine serum albumin (AGE-BSA) was toxic to BRP. At a concentration of 500 micrograms/ml it reduced the BRP number to 48 +/- 3% (p < 0.05) of untreated controls, as determined by cell counting with haemocytometer. AGE-BSA was also toxic to bovine aortic endothelial cells (BAEC) reducing cell number to 84 +/- 3.1% of untreated controls. Under similar conditions, low concentrations (62.5 micrograms/ml) of AGE-BSA were mitogenic to BREC increasing the cell proliferation to 156 +/- 11% (p < 0.05) above that of untreated controls. At a higher dose of 500 micrograms/ml AGE-BSA decreased the proliferation of BREC to 85 +/- 6% of untreated controls. Immunoblot analysis demonstrated that BRP and BREC express the p60 AGE-receptor. Retinal capillary bed from the human also stained positively for the p60 AGE-receptor. Addition of 0.25 micrograms/ml of p60 AGE-receptor antibody was able to block the effects of AGE-BSA on BRP and BREC. The level of binding of [125I]-labelled AGE-BSA to the cell surface was small but significant among the three cell types. There was also an increase in the internalized pool of radioligand in BRP and BREC but this was very much lower than in BAEC. In all the cell types the internalized pool of [125I]-labelled AGE-BSA was much larger than the amount associated with the cell surface. Degradation products were not detected in the media over the 24-h incubation of the cells with [125I]AGE-BSA. The binding of [125I]-labelled AGE-BSA to the cell surface was prevented by the addition of p60 AGE-receptor. These results suggest that the interaction of AGE-modified proteins with the membrane-bound AGE-receptor may play an important role in the pathogenesis of diabetic retinopathy.