Hyaluronic acid (HA) is cleared from the blood by liver endothelial cells through receptor-mediated endocytosis [Eriksson, Fraser, Laurent, Pertoft & Smedsrod (1983) Exp. Cell Res. 144, 223-238]. We have measured the capacity of cultured rat liver endothelial cells to endocytose and degrade 125I-HA (M(r) ~ 44,000) at 37°C. Endocytosis was linear for 3 h and then reached a plateau. The rate of endocytosis was concentration-dependent and reached a maximum of 250 molecules/s per cell. Endocytosis of 125I-HA was inhibited more than 92% by a 150-fold excess of non-radiolabelled HA. HA, chondroitin sulphate and heparin effectively competed for endocytosis of 125I-HA, whereas glucuronic acid, N-acetylglucosamine, DNA, RNA, polygalacturonic acid and dextran did not compete. In the absence of cycloheximide, endothelial cells processed 13 times more 125I-HA in 6 h than their total (cell-surface and intracellular) specific HA-binding capacity. This result was not due to degradation and rapid replacement of receptors, because, even in the presence of cycloheximide, these cells processed 6 times more HA than their total receptor content in 6 h. Also, in the presence of cycloheximide, no decrease in 125I-HA-binding capacity was seen in cells processing or not processing HA for 6 h, indicating that receptors are not degraded after the endocytosis of HA. During endocytosis of HA at 37°C, at least 65% of the intracellular HA receptors became ocupied with HA within 30 min. This indicates that the intracellular HA receptors (75% of the total) function during continuous endocytosis. Hyperosmolarity inhibits endocytosis and receptor recycling in the asialoglycoprotein and low-density-lipoprotein receptor systems by disrupting the coated-pit pathway [Heuser & Anderson (1987) J. Cell Biol. 105, 230a; Oka & Weigel (1988) J. Cell. Biochem. 36, 169-183]. Hyperosmolarity inhibited 125I-HA endocytosis in liver endothelial cells by more than 90%, suggesting use of a coated-pit pathway by this HA receptor. We conclude that liver endothelial cell HA receptors are recycled during the continuous endocytosis and processing of HA.