Using a visual probe, consisting of latex minibeads covalently linked to transferrin (TF), we found that, in rat liver cell suspensions, transferrin receptors were limited to endothelial cells. Neither hepatocytes nor Kupffer cells contained an appreciable number of TF receptors. Specificity of this reaction was demonstrated by preincubation with non-derivatized TF, which inhibited the binding. This was further confirmed by fractionation of liver cell suspensions on metrizamide gradients. The uptake of either the visual probe or 125I- labeled TF was again limited to the endothelium-rich fraction. Transferrin bound to endothelial membrane was internalized at 37 degrees C, but not at 4 degrees C, via a coated pit system. Again, hepatocytes and Kupffer cells did not internalize the probe. The findings suggest that iron may be first taken up by liver endothelium and then transmitted to parenchymal cells. These results emphasize the generally unappreciated role of endothelium in the transport across the tissue-blood barrier.