Orthotopic penetrating guinea pig to rat and chicken to rat corneal xenografts were performed to examine the nature of the host response. Guinea pig to rat xenografts failed at a median of day 3 after surgery. A similar but slightly accelerated pattern of failure was seen in guinea pig xenografts performed in prevascularized recipient rat corneas. Chicken to rat xenografts failed at a median of day 2 after grafting. Rat corneal isograft controls survived indefinitely. Corneal endothelial cells were visible by silver staining on the xenografts immediately after operation, which indicates that failure was not due to loss of these cells during surgery. Histopathology and immu-noperoxidase staining indicated that xenograft failure in euthymic recipients was characterized by early corneal epithelial and endothelial cell damage, granulocytic infiltration, and hemorrhage from recipient corneal and iris capillaries, followed at 7-14 days by infiltration with T cells, macrophages, and eosinophils. An accelerated pattern of graft failure was also observed in guinea pig grafts into homozygous nude rat recipients, which suggests that preformed anti-donor antibody and complement were responsible for some of the early graft damage. Flow cytometry demonstrated the presence of pre-existing natural antibodies to guinea pig and chicken lymphocytes and erythrocytes, as expected from other studies. Immuno-histochemistry showed the presence of rat IgG2a, IgGl, and IgM, but not IgD deposited on grafts in immunocompetent recipients on the first postoperative day. We conclude that orthotopic corneal xenografts undergo substantial accelerated damage mediated by pre-existing antibody, followed at 7-14 days by a cell-mediated response that causes further destruction.