The uptake, metabolism, and cellular distribution of 3H-docosahexaenoic acid (3H-22:6) in the frog retina during in vitro incubation were studied. An initial diffuse labeling throughout the retina was detected by autoradiography and was followed by an active steady increase in labeled photoreceptor cells. After 6 hr of incubation, 92% of the label was concentrated in photoreceptor cells. Among these cells, 435-rods (green rods) labeled heavily and showed two to three times higher uptake than the 502-rods (red rods). Cone uptake labeling was the lowest, showing negligible labeling throughout the cytoplasm. However, oil droplets of the 575-cones actively concentrated 22:6. The high uptake of 3H-22:6 by photoreceptor cells was followed by its rapid esterification into phospholipids. After 6 hr of labeling, only 5% of the radioactivity in the retina was free 22:6, whereas 88% was esterified into phospholipids. The remaining 22:6 was distributed equally in triacylglycerols (TAGs) and diacylglycerols. When 3H-22:6 (0.11 microM) of high specific activity was used, early incubation times showed phosphatidylinositol (PI) labeling to be of the same order of magnitude or greater than that of phosphatidylcholine (PC) or phosphatidylethanolamine (PE). Although the amount of endogenous 22:6 esterified into PI accounted for less than 2% of the 22:6 in retinal phospholipids, 27% of 3H-22:6 labeling was recovered in this phospholipid. When 14C-22:6 at a final concentration of 70 microM was used, a different profile of lipid labeling was observed. Forty percent of the labeling remained in the free fatty acid pool, followed by TAG (24%), PC (14%), and PE (12%). PI showed the smallest increase in picomoles of 14C-22:6 incorporated, when compared with 3H-22:6. In conclusion, a selective and differential uptake of 3H-22:6 by photoreceptor cells is coupled to its active utilization for phospholipid biosynthesis, mainly that of PC, PE, and PI. The differential uptake of 3H-22:6 among photoreceptor cells may reflect involvement of this fatty acid in cell-specific functions.