The intracellular fate of human transferrin (HTf) in macrophages infected by Leishmania was investigated. Binding of HTf-gold complexes at 4 degrees C was competitively inhibited by native holoHTf but not by apoHTf. Infected and uninfected macrophages displayed rather distinct HTf trafficking. Pulse-chase experiments using uninfected macrophages loaded with 15-nm gold-conjugated bovine serum albumin (BSA) and then incubated with 5-nm gold-conjugated HTf revealed a remarkable segregation of these tracers in distinct compartments. Nevertheless, Leishmania-infected macrophages presented extensive particle colocalization at both 60 min and 18 h. Light and electron microscopy immunolabeling indicated that HTf was delivered to the parasitophorous vacuole, formed patches on the amastigote surface, and was endocytosed via the flagellar pocket. Double-staining assays showed the colocalization of biotinylated HTf and its receptor in association with the parasitophorous vacuole. To approach the Tf-binding sites of amastigotes we performed HTf-fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC) assays. Staining was diffuse at 4 degrees C and punctate at 35 degrees C, and only the former was sensitive to ethidium bromide, indicating an eventual temperature-dependent endocytic process. Within parasites, HTf was found in cysteine-proteinase-rich structures, suggesting that the protein can be endocytosed by intracellular amastigotes and sorted to the parasite endosomal-lysosomal compartments rather than being recycled. The treatment of infected macrophages with holoHTf, but not apoHTf, promoted the parasite's intracellular survival. These results suggest that Leishmania amastigotes can exploit and subvert the host-cell endocytic system and indicate the role of Tf-carried iron in the outcome of leishmanial infection.