Changes in the concentration of cytosolic Ca2+ are known to affect various macrophage functions; in particular, exposure in vitro to the Ca2+ ionophore A23187 primes macrophages for tumor cell killing. In the present report, it is shown that treatment with this ionophore similarly mimics IFN-gamma as a priming signal for induction of microbicidal activity. Incubation of mouse bone marrow-derived macrophages with 10(-7) to 10(-6) M A23187 (in the presence of Ca2+) led to intracellular killing of the protozoan parasite Leishmania enriettii within 24 h, provided LPS (1 ng/ml) was also present; no microbicidal activity was observed using either compound alone. A 4-h exposure to the ionophore in the presence of Ca2+ (priming phase) was sufficient to induce leishmanicidal activity upon reincubation with LPS, here acting as a necessary second signal. Addition of EGTA during the priming phase blocked intracellular killing upon subsequent LPS treatment; microbicidal activity could be restored by excess Ca2+, but not Mg2+, suggesting that changes in the concentration of cytosolic Ca2+ are sufficient to mediate the molecular events that lead to acquisition of microbicidal potential. Ionophore-induced leishmanicidal activity was paralleled by a stimulation of the hexosemonophosphate shunt pathway and production of nitrites, which are biochemical correlates of the activated state. In addition, sequential exposure to A23187 and LPS markedly stimulated macrophages to release TNF and PGE2, two agents thought to act as modulators of macrophage activation.