Endotoxemia in rats is associated with the accumulation of neutrophils (polymorphonuclear leukocytes) within the airspaces of the lung. Polymorphonuclear leukocyte influx appears to be regulated by the intrapulmonary accumulation of chemotactic activity. Since alveolar macrophages (AMS) are prevalent cells in the airspace and are known to release a variety of chemotactic factors, we investigated the effect of endotoxin exposure on AM production of chemotactic activity. We tested the hypothesis that endotoxin-exposed AMs have an augmented ability to produce chemoattractants. We recovered AMs by bronchoalveolar lavage from control rats and from rats treated in vivo with a "low dose" (2.5 mg/kg) or a "high dose" (5.0 mg/kg) of Escherichia coli endotoxin. These AMs were then cultured in vitro for 15 h in the absence or the presence of endotoxin (15 and 30 micrograms/ml) to stimulate the cells to produce chemoattractants. We found that in vitro endotoxin stimulated normal AMs to secrete chemoattractants in a dose-dependent fashion. AMs from rats treated with endotoxin in vivo spontaneously secreted more chemoattractants than AMs from control rats. Exposure to in vivo endotoxin followed by in vitro stimulation with endotoxin resulted in an even greater production of chemoattractants by AMs. We found a significant association between the percent polymorphonuclear leukocytes recovered by bronchoalveolar lavage from the airspaces and the production of chemoattractants by AMs from the same specimen. The level of chemotactic activity spontaneously produced by AMs predicted the degree of stimulated production of chemotactic activity. Partial purification indicated that this chemotactic activity has two molecular weight peaks, one near 1,000 and the other near 50,000. The activity was stable at 100 degrees C for at least 30 min and was degradable by trypsinization. We conclude that endotoxin can induce AM production of chemoattractants and that prior exposure to endotoxin in vivo affects the response of AM to in vitro endotoxin exposure. By inference, it is possible that this endotoxin-macrophage interaction may serve as a biologic amplifier of the effects of endotoxin and may have a role in the pathogenesis of septic lung injury in humans.