Incubation of pulmonary alveolar macrophages (PAM) with the synthetic chemotactic tripeptide, N-formyl-methionyl-leucyl-phenylalanine (FMLP) results in deactivation of PAM chemotaxis. The chemotactic response to 10(-8) M FMLP was inhibited 85% after 30 min of preincubation with 10(-6) M FMLP and 48% by 10(-8) M FMLP. Only the higher dose of FMLP (10(-6) M) caused deactivation of the chemotactic response to C5a (20%). Preincubation with partially purified C5a at a concentration of 100 microliter/ml produced a 32% inhibition of the PAM response to 10(-8) M FMLP. In contrast, preincubation with FMLP had no significant effect on superoxide generation, either at baseline or after stimulation. Levels of intracellular cyclic adenosine-3',5'-monophosphate (cAMP) increased in response to PGE1 in the presence of 3-isobutyl-1-methylxanthine (IBMX), a phosphodiesterase inhibitor, but FMLP failed to induce a change in cAMP levels. Studies of 3H-FMLP binding were consistent with two populations of membrane receptors with different affinities. Preincubation of PAM with FMLP did not result in a reduction of maximal binding. We conclude that FMLP induces deactivation of PAM chemotaxis, but cross-deactivation occurs only after high dose treatment. Unlike the PMN, macrophage chemotactic activation is not accompanied by an elevation in cAMP levels. These observations suggest that PAM chemotaxis is influenced by prior exposure to chemotactic stimuli, but other aspects of the PAM response diverge from that of PMN. The mechanism of deactivation of PAM does not appear to result from a shift in the dose-response curve or decreased availability of membrane receptors, but may involve uncoupling of post-receptor cellular responses.