We studied the ability of the recombinant human-active hemopoietic growth factors granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSFrh) and granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSFrh) to activate receptor-mediated transduction pathways which have been implicated in the stimulation of cytotoxic functions in granulocytes. With the use of a panel of fluorescent probes, we found that these two growth factors exerted no detectable immediate effect on the resting transmembrane electrical potential, the intracellular concentration of free calcium ions, or the cytosolic pH of isolated, mature granulocytes. However, when granulocytes were "primed" by preincubation for 90 min with GM-CSFrh or G-CSFrh, the rate of membrane depolarization induced by 10(-7) M N-formyl-methionyl-leucyl-phenylalanine, but not the rate of rise in free calcium ions, was greatly accelerated. In examining potential mechanisms to account for the priming effect of these growth factors, we found that although they did not induce translocation of protein kinase C or stimulate significant degranulation, they each directly caused prompt release of arachidonic acid from plasma membrane phospholipids. Our data indicate that although GM-CSFrh and G-CSFrh do not activate the transduction signals that have most clearly been implicated in receptor-mediated activation of cytotoxic functions in granulocytes--namely, those coupled to membrane depolarization or release of intracellular calcium ions--they appear directly to induce the release of arachidonic acid esterified to membrane phospholipids, an event which may represent the receptor-mediated activation of membrane phospholipases and which may contribute to the "priming" of the cells for enhancement of their functional responsiveness.