Visual cell outer segment renewal was studied in eyes of mutant Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) and Sprague-Dawley (control) rats by a combination of microscopy and radioautography with the light and electron microscopes. RCS and control rats were injected with amino acids-3H at 11 days of age. Radioactive rod outer segment discs were assembled at the outer segment base from radioactive proteins synthesized in the rod inner segments. In controls, all radioactive discs assembled at 11 days of age were displaced the length of the outer segments, removed from outer segment tips, and phagocytized by the pigment epithelium by 8 days after injection. In the RCS rats, disc assembly and displacement resembled controls for the first 3 days after injection. However, as disc assembly continued for some time thereafter, a layer of labeled, disorganized, lamellar debris accumulated between the outer segment tips and the pigment epithelium. The buildup of debris was accompanied by visual cell death. At no time during the study was there evidence for phagocytic activity by the pigment epithelium. 61 days after injection, the layer of debris was the only heavily radioactive component in the retina. In the retina of RCS rats, the outer segment renewal mechanism malfunctions because the pigment epithelium does not fulfill its normal phagocytic role. The end result is visual cell death and blindness.

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