We describe a method for synchronously assembling antigen-antibody complexes underneath macrophages adherent to an antigen-coated surface. We have used this method to study the mechanism of Fc receptor (FcR) disappearance that occurs when resident and thioglycollate-elicited mouse macrophages are cultured on immune complex-coated surfaces. Erythrocytes opsonized with IgG (E(IgG) and a monoclonal antibody (2.4G2 IgG) directed against the trypsin-resistant FcR (FcRII) were used as indicators of the presence and distribution of FcRII molecules on the macrophage plasma membrane. Inhibitors of aerobic (NaCN) and anerobic (2-deoxyglucose, NaF) glycolysis and pinocytosis, of protein biosynthesis (cycloheximide), and of cytoskeletal function (cytochalasin B and D, colchicine, podophyllotoxin, taxol) did not reduce the rate or extent of FcRII modulation. Moreover, treatment of the macrophages with 0.1-0.5% formaldehyde did not reduce the extent of FcRII modulation as measured by the disappearance of E(IgG) binding sites. FcRII modulation was markedly slowed when the temperature was decreased to 2-4 degrees C. These results prove that FcRII modulation is governed by diffusion of the receptor in the plasma membrane. From the speed of FcRII disappearance from the macrophage's upper surface we calculate that the receptor has a diffusion coefficient at 37 degrees C of 2.5 X 10(-9) cm2/s. This finding indicates that FcRII, in its unligated form, is not linked to the macrophage's cytoskeleton, and that the receptor is capable of accommodating spatially to any distribution of ligands on a particle's surface.