The phagocytic capabilities of both normal and dystrophic human retinal pigment epithelial cells were assessed by challenging cultures with both non-biological and biological particles. Cells from either source ingested both carbon particles and latex microspheres. Quantification of the phagocytic process in relation to microspheres showed that uptake was linear over an 8 h period and the rate was dose-dependent. All cultures phagocytosed rod outer segments from a variety of species, but excluded bacteria. By using bovine rod outer segments labelled with [H3] choline both normal and dystrophic cells were still accumulating label 24 h subsequent to challenge; however, this technique had significant problems. The introduction of any particulate matter into the culture medium resulted in changes in the apical membrane of the recipient cells. Such responses were quantified in terms of apical projections per unit area. Counts were always greater in cells challenged with biological material even if the material was not engulfed. © 1984 Springer-Verlag.