We have examined the interaction between interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma)-activated human monocytes and Legionella pneumophila, the agent of Legionnaires' disease. Human monocytes activated with human recombinant IFN-gamma inhibit the intracellular multiplication of L. pneumophila. The degree of inhibition is proportional to the concentration of IFN-gamma, and maximal inhibition consistently occurs with greater than or equal to 2 micrograms/ml. Monoclonal anti-IFN-gamma antibody completely neutralizes the capacity of IFN-gamma to activate monocytes. Monocytes infected 24 hr after explantation maximally inhibit L. pneumophila multiplication if treated with IFN-gamma before infection or up to 2 hr after infection; treatment 6 hr or more after infection results in submaximal inhibition. Monocytes infected 48 hr after explantation inhibit L. pneumophila multiplication maximally if treated with IFN-gamma up to 12 hr before infection, but submaximally if treated at the time of infection. Once activated, monocytes inhibit L. pneumophila multiplication in the absence of IFN-gamma in the culture. Strikingly, monocytes maximally inhibit L. pneumophila multiplication after treatment with IFN-gamma for as briefly as 1 hr before infection. In the absence of anti-L. pneumophila antibody, neither IFN-gamma-activated monocytes nor nonactivated monocytes kill L. pneumophila. In the presence of specific antibody and complement, IFN-gamma-activated monocytes kill a proportion (0.5 log) of an inoculum but not more than nonactivated monocytes. L. pneumophila forms a specialized phagosome in IFN-gamma-activated monocytes that does not differ ultrastructurally from the L. pneumophila phagosome in nonactivated monocytes. These results demonstrate that IFN-gamma can activate human monocytes to exert a potent antimicrobial effect against a highly virulent intracellular bacterial pathogen. These findings extend previous observations on interactions between activated mononuclear phagocytes and L. pneumophila, and additionally support the hypothesis that cell-mediated immunity plays a major role in host defense against L. pneumophila.