The ligand specificity of the human monocyte receptor that mediates phagocytosis of particulate activators of the human alternative complement pathway was defined by inhibiting the phagocytic response with glycans known to be present in zymosan. When monocytes in monolayers were preincubated with 100 micrograms/ml of beta-glucan and then incubated with 1.25 to 2.5 X 10(6) zymosan particles, the percentage of cells that exhibited phagocytosis was inhibited in a time-dependent manner; maximal inhibition occurred within 20 min of preincubation. beta-Glucan inhibited monocyte phagocytosis of zymosan and rabbit erythrocytes (Er) in a similar dose-dependent fashion and at 100 micrograms/ml reduced monocyte ingestion of 5 X 10(6)/ml zymosan and 2 X 10(8)/ml Er by 63 +/- 8% and 68 +/- 16% (mean +/- SD, n = 3), respectively. The other glycan constituent of zymosan, mannan, was less than 1% as active, and 10 mg/ml of mannan reduced the number of monocytes ingesting zymosan and Er by 56 +/- 12% and 26 +/- 11%, respectively. At concentrations as high as 500 micrograms/ml, beta-glucan had no effect on monocyte Fc, C3b, or fibronectin receptor-mediated functions. Enzymatic hydrolysis of beta-glucan and alpha-mannan with beta-glucosidase or beta-glucanase before their incubation with monocytes abrogated their inhibitory capacity, whereas hydrolysis with alpha-mannosidase or alpha-glucosidase did not. Neither of the two alpha-glucans tested (dextran T-70 and nigeran) affected monocyte ingestion of zymosan particles or sheep erythrocytes (Es) sensitized with rabbit 7S anti-Es (EsIgG) at concentrations as high as 2 mg/ml. In contrast, a number of beta-glucans were active against zymosan but not EsIgG ingestion with a 75% reduction in the number of monocytes ingesting zymosan occurring with 100 micrograms/ml laminarin, 500 micrograms/ml soluble pachyman, and 900 micrograms/ml of soluble pustulan. The galactan, agarose, either in suspensions at 2 mg/ml or in a soluble portion at 600 micrograms/ml failed to affect monocyte ingestion of zymosan particles or Er. Thus, the monocyte receptor for particulate activators that is specifically inhibited by beta-glucan at a rate compatible with a phagocytic process and that recognizes beta-glucans but not alpha-glucans, mannan, or galactan is a beta-glucan receptor.