Murine Kupffer cells (KCs), which constitute one of the largest populations of tissue macrophages, differ from most other cells of the myelomonocytic lineage in lacking the capacity for a respiratory burst. A collagenase perfusion technique followed by adherence to plastic at low temperature yielded pure cultures of KCs uniformly expressing receptors for Fc and C3bi, and containing virtually no morphologically detectable intracytoplasmic debris. Such KCs took up and oxidized glucose via the hexose monophosphate shunt about the same as peritoneal macrophages (PCs). Respiratory burst stimuli failed to enhance the hexose monophosphate shunt in KCs, probably because no H2O2 was produced. Detergent-permeabilized KCs generated no O2- in the presence of 1 mM NADPH, in striking contrast to all PC populations studied. Yet, KCs contained at least one component of the O2(-)-producing oxidase, cytochrome b559, in the same quantities as PCs and neutrophils. Cytochrome b559 was demonstrated by a novel double-reduction spectral technique that eliminated interference from hemoglobin and mitochondrial cytochromes. Consistent with the presence of the oxidase, KCs acquired normal respiratory burst capacity after prolonged incubation in vitro. The defect in triggering the respiratory burst in KCs was selective for the reduction of O2 by NADPH, in that reduction of O2 by endogenous arachidonate was readily demonstrate in response to zymosan. The percent of arachidonate released, the percent oxygenated, and the suppression of prostacyclin and leukotriene C production, as well as the pattern of LFA-1 expression, all resembled the pattern reported with PCs several days after exposure to bacteria. Indeed, exposure of PCs to low numbers of zymosan particles led gradually to complete suppression of respiratory burst capacity and refractoriness to its enhancement by rIFN-gamma, as evident in KCs both before and after their explanation. Thus, the modulation of oxidative metabolism that characterizes KCs probably arises from frequent endocytic encounters. This phenomenon may permit macrophages to act as scavengers without oxidative damage to bystander cells.