It has been shown that low concentrations of E. coli lipopolysaccharides (LPS) greatly and selectively stimulate phagocytosis and related functions in mouse bone marrow-derived macrophages. Culture in the presence of 50 ng/ml LPS induced on average a 10-fold enhancement of phagocytosis of IgG-coated sheep erythrocytes. Activation was in two stages--a small increase observed during the first 8 to 12 hr, and the major increase noted between 16 and 24 hr. Phagocytic activity remained at the maximal level for 24 hr and then declined progressively. Stimulation by LPS was dose-dependent; significant effects could be observed at 0.8 ng/ml and the maximum was reached at 10 ng/ml. LPS-treated cells also showed a markedly increased tendency to form colonies. All these effects could be prevented by the addition of 100 ng/ml polymyxin B together with LPS, indicating that the active principle is lipid A. The LPS-dependent increase in phagocytic activity is probably mediated by increased Fc receptor capacity because both parameters were influenced in parallel by the stimulus. Phagocytosis-related events, such as enhanced hexose monophosphate shunt activity, H2O2 formation, and nitroblue tetrazolium reduction were also stimulated by LPS. By contrast, pinocytosis was unaffected. Measurements of cell-associated enzyme activities showed that lactate dehydrogenase, acid phosphatase, and cathepsin D were significantly increased. Beta-glucuronidase, beta-galactosidase, alkaline phosphodiesterase, and aminopeptidase were unchanged and NAD nucleosidase was markedly decreased after LPS treatment. 5'-Nucleotidase and glucosamine uptake were undetectable both in control and LPS-stimulated cells. LPS treatment induced a significant increase in cell-associated protein, but did not result in cell proliferation or increased cell loss as shown by the DNA content that remained constant. LPS-induced changes were dependent on de novo protein synthesis; cycloheximide prevented enhancement of phagocytosis, Fc receptor capacity, and colony formation.