Retinal pigment epithelial cells selectively phagocytize rod outer segments by a process that may be mediated by specific cell surface receptors. Since many receptors are glycoproteins, we have studied the effect of tunicamycin, an inhibitor of N-linked oligosaccharide synthesis, and of castanospermine and swainsonine, which are inhibitors of oligosaccharide processing, on the ability of cultured retinal pigment epithelial cells to phagocytize rod outer segment. Tunicamycin inhibits the glycosylation of newly synthesized glycoproteins by 85-90%; concomitantly, the phagocytosis of rod outer segments is inhibited by 70-80%. The effect of tunicamycin is to initially reduce rod outer segments binding, and therefore the subsequent ingestion of rod outer segments. SDS-PAGE analysis and autoradiography of [35S]methionine labelled extracts of tunicamycin-treated cells, demonstrates the disappearance of a number of glycoprotein bands, and the appearance of a number of protein bands of lower Mr. Kinetic analysis of the disappearance and reappearance of specific glycoproteins suggests that the lower Mr bands are the non-glycosylated forms of the higher Mr bands. By contrast, castanospermine and swainsonine have no effect on the ability of retinal pigment epithelial cells to phagocytize rod outer segments, or on the SDS-PAGE pattern of treated cells, although they were shown to inhibit oligosaccharide processing as expected. These results support the hypothesis that rod outer segment phagocytosis by retinal pigment epithelial cells is mediated by specific glycoprotein receptors. N-Glycosylation of these receptors is required for their function, or for their insertion into the plasma membrane, whereas processing of the N-linked oligosaccharide chains of these receptors is not crucial for rod outer segment phagocytosis by retinal pigment epithelial cells.