Human alveolar macrophages activated by human rIFN-gamma inhibit the intracellular multiplication of Legionella pneumophila, an intracellular bacterial pathogen and the agent of Legionnaires' disease. Activation of alveolar macrophages with IFN-gamma is dose dependent; significant inhibition of L. pneumophila multiplication (mean 1.60 +/- 0.20 logs) is achieved consistently with concentrations of IFN-gamma of greater than or equal to 2 x 10(-2) micrograms/ml (220 U/ml). Activation of alveolar macrophages is also time dependent. In macrophages treated continuously after explantation, macrophages infected at 48 to 96 h after explantation are more inhibitory than macrophages infected at 24 h after explantation. In macrophages not treated continuously after explantation but treated for various lengths of time before infection, the longer their exposure to IFN-gamma before infection, the greater the inhibition of L. pneumophila multiplication (96 greater than 72 greater than 48 greater than 24 h). IFN-gamma-activated alveolar macrophages exhibit morphologic signs of activation, including increased size, spreading, and aggregation. This paper demonstrates that a human resident macrophage can be activated with IFN-gamma such that it exhibits enhanced antimicrobial activity against a relevant pathogen.