Specific populations of hepatic sinusoidal cells were stained with monoclonal antibodies that recognize monocytes/macrophages (ED1), tissue macrophages (Kupffer cells) (ED2), MHC class II (Ia) antigen (MRC OX6), and dendritic cells/gamma,delta T-cells (MRC OX62) and analyzed by light and electron microscopy. The majority of ED1(+) and/or ED2(+) cells were localized to the hepatic parenchyma, whereas OX6(+) and/or OX62(+) cells were more densely distributed within Glisson's sheath than in the hepatic parenchyma. Double-immunoperoxidase staining of normal liver for ED1, ED2, and OX6 identified dendritic cells (DC) of two different phenotypes, ED1(+)ED2(-)OX6(+) and ED1(-)ED2(-)OX6(+). DC can be classified into three different types based on ultrastructural characteristics. The first type (type I) is characterized by one or more long cytoplasmic processes and a well-developed lysosomal system. The second type (type II) has an inconspicuous lysosomal system, abundant hyaloplasm, and characteristic short cytoplasmic processes. The third type (type I-II) has cytologic features intermediate between those of type I and type II DC. At the electron-microscopic level, these three cell types are found in the sinusoidal lumen, whereas the majority of type II DC are located in the space of Disse and Glisson's sheath. Furthermore, some OX6-labeled elongated DC appeared to traverse the lumen of sinusoids through endothelial pores to enter the space of Disse. One hour after intravenous injection of latex particles (0.81 micrometer in diameter), numerous latex-laden dendritic cells (ED1(+)OX6(+), type I and type I-II) were detected in the lumen of hepatic sinusoids, but not in the space of Disse or Glisson's sheath. These findings suggest that normal rat liver contains resident dendritic cells which downregulate phagocytic activity and mature into potent accessory cells during migration from the portal vein toward the central vein. These DC then traverse the sinusoidal lumen to the hepatic lymph system via the space of Disse.