Apoptosis participates in every step of atherogenesis, but the process of clearance of apoptotic cells by phagocytosis has been underestimated. Rapid removal of apoptotic cells is critical for tissue homeostasis, in order to avoid accumulation of necrotic material and subsequent inflammation in the pathological vascular wall. We have demonstrated by RT–PCR, western blot and immunocytofluorescence that vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMCs) express the phosphatidylserine receptor (PSR). We then tested the involvement of PSR in the ability of VSMCs to bind and engulf apoptotic cells. We used a model of senescent erythrocytes, which expose PS after 4 days of culture (85% of cells relative to 8% in freshly isolated erythrocytes). The pseudo-peroxidase activity of haemoglobin contained within erythrocytes allowed us to quantify per se both binding and phagocytosis by VSMCs. We have also shown by light and confocal microscopy that VSMCs were able to ingest aged erythrocytes. Addition of a blocking antibody or transfection of VSMCs by a siRNA directed against PSR reduced the binding and engulfment of aged erythrocytes by more than 90%. These results suggest that PSR is involved in phagocytosis of PS-presenting cells. Incubation of aged erythrocytes with VSMCs also significantly increased the expression of PSR, suggesting that the tethering/ingestion of apoptotic cells triggers this process. Immunostaining for PSR in complicated atherosclerotic plaques shows positivity in the media and macrophage-rich areas. The mechanisms underlying phagocytosis and involving PSR in vivo, within the pathological arterial wall, deserve further investigation. Copyright © 2007 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.