The fundamental biology of how stable cell-cell bonds develop between activated macrophages and tumor cells, although essential to lysis of the neoplastic targets, remains poorly understood. To investigate whether this phenomenon could be pharmacologically manipulated, we analyzed the effect of phorbol diesters on tumor cell binding by macrophages. Activated murine peritoneal macrophages, treated in vitro with as little as 1 ng/ml of phorbol myristate acetate (PMA), bound significantly more tumor cells than did untreated macrophages. The effect was induced rapidly by PMA (i.e., maximum enhancement was seen within 15 min) and resulted in an average approximately twofold increase in the number of targets bound. The interaction between PMA-treated activated macrophages and tumor cells was completed much more rapidly than by untreated macrophages. The enhanced binding was seen only in macrophages treated with biologically active phorbol esters. Only the selective interaction between activated macrophages and tumor cells was affected (i.e., PMA treatment had no effect on nonselective interactions between activated macrophages and non-neoplastic targets or between nonactivated macrophages and any type of target). Pretreatment of activated macrophages with PMA apparently altered the requirements for microfilaments and microtubules in establishing binding, because cytochalasin B and colchicine, which inhibited control binding, as well as phagocytosis, had no effect on PMA-enhanced binding. PMA treatment did not alter energy requirements for binding, however, because low temperature (4 degrees C) or inhibitors of glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation blocked both control and PMA-enhanced binding. The enhancement of binding apparently was not due to large quantities of secreted oxygen metabolites but did correlate closely with increased spreading and surface area of the macrophages. PMA treatment resulted in enhanced expression of trypsin-sensitive tumor-cell binding sites on the macrophage surface. Sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis of macrophage membrane proteins labeled with 125I by the lactoperoxidase method revealed at least four trypsin-sensitive cell surface proteins that were re-expressed after PMA treatment. The data suggest that rearrangement and/or induced expression of surface binding sites may be an important step in the binding of tumor cells and indicate that PMA is a useful pharmacologic probe in dissecting the establishment of such binding into discrete steps.