Basophilic granulocytes were purified from the blood of normal individuals by successive isopyknic centrifugation and elutriation centrifugation. Starting with the leukocyte-rich fraction of 500 ml of blood, we recovered 31 to 80% (mean 51%, n = 20) of the basophils in 45 to 87% purity (mean 69%, n = 23). The contaminating cells were mainly lymphocytes. The basophils were greater than 98% vital (exclusion of ethidium bromide and hydrolysis of fluorescein diacetate). The histamine content of the basophils was 1.1 to 2 pg/cell (mean 1.6 pg/cell, n = 22). With anti-IgE, 30 to 50% of the histamine was released; with phorbol myristic acetate (PMA) or the calcium ionophore A23187, 70 to 100% of the histamine was released. Serum-opsonized zymosan (STZ) did not induce histamine release. Reactions with monoclonal antibodies revealed that the basophils expressed the C3bi receptor (CR3) and the leukocyte function-associated antigen 1 (LFA1), but not the gp 150,95 antigen, the C3b receptor (CR1), or the low avidity Fc gamma receptor. Basophils carry class I but not class II HLA antigens. During incubation of the basophils with serum-opsonized Staphylococcus aureus or Escherichia coli, these bacteria were neither phagocytized nor killed. STZ, PMA, A23187, or anti-IgE did not initiate an "oxidative burst" in the basophils. This was tested with oxygen consumption, cytochrome c reduction, NBT reduction, chemiluminescence, and release of hydrogen peroxide. Moreover, we did not detect cytochrome b558, superoxide dismutase, catalase, or peroxidase in the basophils. Of the typical granule-associated enzymes lysozyme, Vitamin B12-binding protein, and beta-glucuronidase, only beta-glucuronidase was present in the basophils in detectable amounts. This enzyme was released, together with histamine, on incubation of the cells with PMA, A23187, or anti-IgE, but not with STZ. We conclude that basophils from normal human blood are not phagocytes and are probably not involved in the oxidative defense of the host against foreign antigens.