Both virulent (V) and avirulent (AV) strains of Actinomyces viscosus T14 are capable of colonizing the oral cavity of gnotobiotic rats, but only T14-V causes destructive periodontal disease. The basis for this difference in in vivo pathogenicity has not been adequately defined. In the present study we compared the capacities of T14-AV and T14-V to provoke in vitro extracellular release of lysosomal constituents from human polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNs). In serum-free cultures, viable T14-V but not T14-AV stimulated discharge of PMN lysosomes. The release response was correlated with PMN phagocytic activity; thus, PMNs readily ingested T14-V but not T14-AV. To explain these differences in PMN-bacteria interactions, subcellular fractions of T14-AV or T14-V were incubated with PMNs. A crude, insoluble sonic extract derived from T14-V caused PMN lysosome release, but a similar fraction from T14-AV was inactive. However, following extensive washing and treatment with deoxyribonuclease or sodium dodecyl sulfate, cell wall fractions of T14-AV stimulated lysosome release. These procedures apparently removed an extracellular polysaccharide slime which is synthesized by T14-AV but not by T14-V. There was a significant reduction in the capacities of viable T14-V or cell wall fractions of T14-V or T14-AV to provoke PMN lysosome release when these agents were preincubated with a slime material isolated from T14-AV. This inhibitory influence of slime was overcome by the addition of fresh or heated (56°C, 30 min) serum to the PMN-bacteria cultures. The data suggest a relationship between the abilities of the avirulent and virulent strains of A. viscosus T14 to act as periodontal pathogens in vivo and to serve as stimuli for PMN lysosome release in vitro.