We have studied the effects of picolinic acid, a product of tryptophan degradation, on the activation of mouse peritoneal macrophages (M phi). Picolinic acid acts synergistically with IFN-gamma in activating M phi from C57BL/6 mice. Moreover, M phi from C3H/HeJ mice and C3H/HeN that do not become cytotoxic in response to IFN-gamma alone could be fully activated by exposure to picolinate plus IFN-gamma. These results indicate that picolinic acid is a potent costimulator of M phi activation that functions as a second signal. Inasmuch as we have previously demonstrated that the activation of cytotoxic M phi correlates with specific changes in ribosomal RNA (rRNA), we investigated whether picolinic acid could modify M phi RNA metabolism. Picolinic acid inhibited the synthesis of total M phi RNA, the accumulation of newly synthesized 28S rRNA, and augmented the steady state levels of rRNA precursors (pre-rRNA). These changes in RNA metabolism were similar to those previously described in murine M phi activated in vitro or in vivo to express tumoricidal activity. These results demonstrate that picolinic acid is a potent, biologic M phi second signal, suggest that the changes in rRNA are causally connected with the expression of tumoricidal activity, and suggest the existance of an autocrine effect mediated by picolinic acid.