Here we report that IL-3 (also referred to as multi-CSF because of its colony-stimulating activity on a variety of hemopoietic cell lineages) can function as a macrophage-activating factor (MAF). IL-3 was able to regulate the expression of class II MHC Ag and the cellular interaction molecule lymphocyte function-associated Ag-1 on the surface of murine peritoneal exudate cells. The kinetics of IL-3-induced Ia expression appeared to be distinct from that induced by either IFN-gamma, IL-4, or granulocyte-macrophage-CSF. IL-3 was also distinguished from these factors by the finding that it did not induce macrophage tumoricidal activity. In addition to its inherent MAF activities, IL-3 also showed a marked synergy with low doses of LPS (0.05 to 0.5 ng/ml) as well as IFN-gamma in Ia induction. When lymphocyte function-associated Ag-1 expression was evaluated, the effects of these stimuli appeared to be only additive. Although LPS has been shown to inhibit IFN-gamma-induced Ia expression, in our experiments this property of LPS is manifest only when present at doses greater than or equal to 50 ng/ml. At lower concentrations, LPS potentiated both IL-3- and IFN-gamma-induced class II MHC Ag expression. Data presented here also suggest that the synergistic interactions between low doses of LPS and IL-3 are not mediated by known LPS-inducible cytokines of macrophage origin, because rIL-1, TNF-alpha, or IL-6 did not enhance the response to IL-3. Because IL-3 can also participate in the regulation of IL-1 expression, it appears that IL-3 can function as a MAF which selectively regulates the accessory cell characteristics required for Ag presentation, as opposed to the cytolytic functions of the macrophage.