Resistance to murine leishmaniasis has been related to the propagation of specific Th cell subsets (Th1 and Th2). This study shows that there are differences between resistant and susceptible mice in the initial myelomonocytic infiltrate, which precede the specific T cell response. After subcutaneous injection of 2 x 10(7) Leishmania major into footpads of resistant C57Bl/6 and susceptible BALB/c mice we performed immunohistochemical studies on the infiltrate. Two days after infection the percentage of more mature, F4/80-positive macrophages in the lesion increased faster in C57Bl/6 mice (63%) than in BALB/c mice (29%). The same strain-specific differences were observed after infection of corresponding strains of athymic mice (57.2% in C57Bl/6 nu/nu; 33.6% in BALB/c nu/nu), thus excluding a T cell-controlled phenomenon. After 1 wk the infiltrate in susceptible mice began to reveal significantly more cells containing MRP14, which is expressed by granulocytes and less mature monocytes but not by mature macrophages. No corresponding differences were found between athymic strains, suggesting that at this point organization of the infiltrate falls under control of protective T cells. In bone marrow cultures of BALB/c and C57Bl/6 mice, the percentage of F4/80-positive macrophages was also increasing faster in C57Bl/6 mice than in BALB/c mice. Increased expression of the F4/80 Ag was associated with higher leishmanicidal activity of C57Bl/6 macrophages. MRP14-positive bone marrow cells on the other hand were rarely infected by parasites. We suggest 1) that the earlier appearance of leishmanicidal macrophages in lesions of C57Bl/6 mice could influence propagation of either Th1 or Th2 cells by reduction of parasite load or by differential secretion of decisive cytokines and 2) that the diffuse accumulation of granulocytes and inflammatory monocytes in susceptible mice facilitates spread of disease.