Numerous immature thymocytes undergo apoptosis and are rapidly engulfed by phagocytic thymic macrophages. The macrophage surface receptors involved in apoptotic thymocyte recognition are unknown. We have examined the role of the class A macrophage scavenger receptor (SR-A) in the engulfment of apoptotic thymocytes. Uptake of steroid-treated apoptotic thymocytes by thymic and inflammatory-elicited SR-A positive macrophages is partially inhibited by an anti-SR-A mAb and more completely by a range of scavenger receptor ligands. Thymic macrophages from mice with targeted disruption of the SR-A gene show a 50% reduction in phagocytosis of apoptotic thymocytes in vitro. These data suggest that SR-A may play a role in the clearance of dying cells in the thymus.