The retinal pigment epithelial cell has several important functions, one of which is the phagocytosis of photoreceptor outer segments which are discarded diurnally. We previously provided evidence in human retinal pigment epithelium that CD36, an 88 kDa integral membrane glycoprotein, participates in the phagocytosis of photoreceptor outer segments. Since in the Royal College of Surgeons dystrophic rat, retinal pigment epithelial cells fail to perform this function and as a result the photoreceptor cells degenerate, the expression of CD36 has now been examined by retinal pigment epithelial cells of the dystrophic rat. Consistent with earlier work using human retinal pigment epithelial cells, expression of CD36 by freshly isolated retinal pigment epithelial cells of Long Evans rats was confirmed by immunoblotting and immunocytochemistry with antibody to rat CD36. The protein was also present in lysates of cultured retinal pigment epithelium. Furthermore, with an in vitro phagocytosis assay using 125I-labeled outer segments, it was demonstrated that the binding and ingestion of outer segments by rat retinal pigment epithelial cells was reduced by 64% in the presence of antibodies to rat CD36. In contrast to observations in the Long Evans rat, immunoblotting of retinal pigment epithelial cells isolated from the adult Royal College of Surgeons rat revealed that CD36 protein was not present. This appeared to be a tissue-specific absence since CD36 protein was present in peritoneal macrophages harvested from the adult Royal College of Surgeons rat. A developmental study of CD36 expression also demonstrated an absence of the protein on the day of birth and at 1 and 2 weeks postnatally. By reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction, CD36 mRNA was detected in freshly harvested retinal pigment epithelial cells of the Royal College of Surgeons rat at only PN1, 1 week and 10 days. Significantly, at 2 weeks of age and in the adult Royal College of Surgeons rat. CD36 transcripts were no longer present. Nevertheless, by Northern blot analysis CD36 mRNA was detected in various other tissues shown previously to express CD36. We conclude that in RPE cells of the Royal College of Surgeons rat, CD36 protein is not expressed while CD36 mRNA is present only transiently during postnatal development.