Adenosine-degrading enzymes within the liver lobule can modulate both vascular and metabolic effects of circulating adenosine in the liver. Since it has not been fully established whether nonparenchymal cells participate in the elimination of sinusoidal purines, isolated Kupffer cells and endothelial cells were tested for their capacity to degrade extracellular purines. After perfusion and digestion of rat livers by collagenase, the resulting mixed cell population was separated by centrifugal elutriation. The isolated parenchymal and nonparenchymal cells were incubated for up to 2 hr in the presence of [8-14C]adenosine, [8-14C]guanosine and [8-14C]hypoxanthine (50 μmoles per liter). In the deproteinized medium, adenosine, guanosine, inosine, adenine, guanine, xanthine, hypoxanthine, uric acid and allantoin were separated by reversed-phase high-performance liquid chromatography. Radioactive peaks were collected and counted. Nonparenchymal cells catalyzed the degradation of adenosine into inosine and hypoxanthine. However, the formation of xanthine, uric acid or allantoin from adenosine could only be detected in hepatocyte suspensions. Within 15 min, adenosine was completely eliminated from the medium by Kupffer cells, whereas endothelial cells catabolized only less than half of the initial amount of the adenine nucleoside during this time period. Accordingly, incubation of nonparenchymal cells in the presence of hypoxanthine did not result in the formation of further breakdown products of the purine, whereas its catabolites slowly accumulated in the medium of hepatocytes. Guanosine conversion into guanine and xanthine was much slower in endothelial cells as compared to Kupffer cells and hepatocytes. Further degradation of xanthine occurred only in the presence of hepatocytes. The results of our study indicate a rapid breakdown of extracellular purine nucleosides by Kupffer cells and a much slower catabolism by endothelial cells. Further degradation of hypoxanthine or xanthine was exclusively catalyzed by hepatocytes, indicating metabolic cooperation between parenchymal and nonparenchymal liver cells.