When human neutrophils are incubated with LPS, they become primed for enhanced release of O2- in response to stimulation by FMLP. We investigated two aspects of LPS priming: 1) whether priming depends on secretion of TNF-alpha by monocytes present in neutrophil preparations, and 2) whether plasma is required for priming. Using plasma-Percoll gradients, we isolated neutrophils that contained only 0.1% monocytes. At 37 degrees C, these neutrophils were significantly primed by LPS (100 ng/ml) within 30 min. In contrast, LPS-treated monocytes required 60 min to secrete significant neutrophil-priming activity, the major component of which was TNF-alpha. Further, antibody against TNF-alpha failed to inhibit priming of neutrophils by LPS at 15, 30, and 45 min, and inhibited only 15% at 60 min. The results suggested that TNF-alpha or other factors from monocytes were not essential for priming of neutrophils by LPS. Neutrophils that had been washed free of plasma by centrifugation through 50% Percoll responded only weakly to LPS with respect to priming for enhanced O2- release and increased expression of alkaline phosphatase activity on the cell surface. Priming of washed neutrophils could be restored by adding back plasma (0.1 to 1.0%). This effect of plasma was not blocked by heating the plasma to 56 degrees C but was blocked at 100 degrees C. LPS priming could be blocked by polymyxin B, even in the presence of plasma. Thus, priming required both LPS and plasma. Neutrophils incubated with LPS in the absence of plasma were not primed by subsequent addition of plasma, but were primed by addition of plasma and LPS. Culture supernatants from neutrophils incubated with 20 ng/ml LPS in the absence of plasma failed to prime fresh neutrophils, but supernatants from neutrophils incubated with LPS in the presence of 1% plasma were able to prime fresh neutrophils. These results implied that neutrophils inactivated LPS and that plasma protected LPS from inactivation. Nevertheless, such inactivated LPS retained the ability to gel Limulus lysate at 10 pg/ml, and the ability to prime monocytes at 100 pg/ml. Thus, plasma prevented a neutrophil-specific inactivation of LPS.