The iron-binding protein lactoferrin (Lf) present in blood is metabolized by the liver. Isolated rat hepatocytes vigorously endocytose bovine Lf via recycling Ca2(+)-dependent binding sites, but the uptake of iron from Lf by hepatocytes has not been examined. In this study, isolated rat hepatocytes were incubated with radiolabelled bovine Lf (125I-Lf, 59Fe-Lf or 125I-59Fe-Lf) at 37 degrees C, then washed at 4 degrees C in the presence of dextran sulphate with either Ca2+ or EGTA to distinguish between total bound and internal radioactivity respectively. Cells internalized 125I-Lf protein and Lf-bound 59Fe at maximal endocytic rates of 1700 and 480 mol.cell-1.s-1 respectively. When Lf was normalized for 59Fe content, these endocytic rates were equivalent and reflected an uptake potential of at least 3400 mol of iron.cell-1.s-1. Cells prebound with 125I-59Fe-Lf to Ca2+(-)dependent sites at 4 degrees C internalized more than 80% of both 125I-Lf protein and Lf-bound 59Fe approx. 6 min after warming to 37 degrees C at similar rates (125I-Lf: k(in) = 0.276 min-1, 59Fe: k(in) = 0.303 min-1). Within 4 h at 37 degrees C, cells had released 25% or less internalized Lf protein in the form of acid-soluble 125I-by-products but retained all the Lf-delivered 59Fe. Hyperosmotic disruption of clathrin-dependent endocytosis blocked the uptake of 125I-Lf and Lf-bound 59Fe. Incubation of cells with 125I-59Fe-Lf and a 100 molar excess of diferric transferrin reduced slightly the endocytosis of 125I-Lf protein and 59Fe accumulation. Treatment of cells with the ferric chelator desferrioxamine did not alter uptake of 125I-Lf protein or Lf-bound 59Fe, but the ferrous chelator bathophenanthroline disulphonate slightly elevated endocytosis of 125I-Lf protein and Lf-bound 59Fe. These findings indicate that Lf does not release its bound iron before endocytosis. It was concluded from this study that hepatocytes take up iron from Lf at high rates by a process that requires endocytosis of Lf-iron complexes.