This study was undertaken to determine the fate of circulating NH2-terminal propeptide of type I procollagen (PINP) in rats. Radiolabeled PINP showed a biphasic serum decay curve after intravenous injection. 79% of the material disappeared from the blood during the initial alpha-phase (t1/2 alpha = 0.6 min), while the remaining 21% was eliminated with a t1/2 beta of 3.3 min. The major site of uptake was the liver, 78, 1, and 21% of its radioactivity being recovered in isolated liver endothelial cells (LEC), Kupffer cells, and parenchymal cells, respectively. In LEC, fluorescently labeled PINP accumulated in small (0.1 microns) peripheral and larger (> 0.1 microns) perinuclear vesicles within 10 min at 37 degrees C after a binding pulse at 4 degrees C. These grew in size with increasing chasing time, reaching a maximum diameter of 1 microns or more after 30 min, and taking the shape of rings that were stained only along their periphery. At chase intervals exceeding 30 min, the size of the vesicles decreased, and after 60 min the stain appeared in smaller, densely stained perinuclearly located vesicles. Degradation of 125I-PINP to free smaller fragments and 125I- was significant after 30 min. Only formaldehyde-treated albumin, acetylated LDL, polyinosinic acid and NH2-terminal propeptide of type III procollagen (PIIINP) competed with PINP for uptake. These findings indicate that clearance of PINP and PIIINP, which are normal waste products generated in large quantities, is a physiological function of the scavenger receptor in LEC.