AIMS--This study aimed to isolate and classify by flow cytometry, the cell surface phenotype of microglia in the normal rat retina with a view to identifying putative antigen presenting cells (APC) within the retina, which has to date not been possible by immunohistochemistry. METHODS--Normal rat retinal microglia were isolated and classified using a modification of an isolation technique employing graduated Percoll density gradient cell separation and flow cytometric phenotypic criteria used for CNS microglia. RESULTS--Retinal microglia can be defined by flow cytometry on the basis of their CD45lowCD11b/c+CD4low cell surface expression. Constitutive MHC class II expression in the normal rat retina was confined almost exclusively to a very minor population of cells expressing neither low (microglia) nor high levels of CD45. Three colour flow cytometric analysis confirmed that these MHC class II positive cells were ED2+. CONCLUSIONS--Using this sensitive isolation technique we have identified the cell surface characteristics of ramified, resident microglia, and found that they do not constitutively express MHC class II. There is, however, constitutive MHC class II expression on a phenotypically distinct population of cells (CD45low/highED2+). We propose these cells are the counterpart of the perivascular macrophages found in the CNS which present antigen to extravasating T cells, although their exact retinal location can only be confirmed by immunohistochemical analysis. The role of parenchymal microglia as APC remains undefined. Future isolation of microglia and putative perivascular cells using this technique will help identify the role these cells play in the initiation and perpetuation of immune responses within the retina.