An entirely in vitro technique was employed to characterize hemoglobin-iron metabolism by human macrophages obtained by culture of blood monocytes and pulmonary alveolar macrophages. Macrophages phagocytized about three times as many erythrocytes as monocytes and six times as many erythrocytes as pulmonary alveolar macrophages. The rate of subsequent release of 59Fe to the extracellular transferrin pool was two- to fourfold greater for macrophages as compared to the other two cell types. The kinetics of 59Fe-transferrin release were characterized by a relatively rapid early phase (hours 1-4) followed by a slow phase (hours 4-72) for all three cell types. Intracellular movement of iron was characterized by a rapid shift from hemoglobin to ferritin that was complete with the onset of the slow phase of extracellular release. A transient increase in 59Fe associated with an intracellular protein eluting with transferrin was also observed within 1 hour after phagocytosis. The process of hemoglobin-iron release to extracellular transferrin was inhibited at 4 degrees C but was unaffected by inhibitory of protein synthesis, glycolysis, microtubule function, and microfilament function. These data emphasize the rapidity of macrophage hemoglobin iron metabolism, provide a model for characterization of this process in vitro, and in general confirm data obtained utilizing in vivo animal models.