We investigated the capacity of bacterial endotoxin (lipopolysaccharide, LPS) to modify the oxidative metabolic response to membrane stimulation of human neutrophils. Neutrophils were pretreated for 60 min with LPS, 10 ng/ml, then stimulated by exposure to fixed immune complexes, the chemotactic peptide formyl-methionyl-leucyl-phenylalanine (FMLP), or phorbol myristate acetate. Release of superoxide anion (O-2) was up to 7-times greater in cells preincubated with LPS, depending upon the stimulus used. Consumption of oxygen and release of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) were similarly increased, using FMLP as stimulus. The enhancement was accompanied by a reduction in lag time and an increase in the rate of the response, but the duration of the oxidative events was not changed. The molecular basis for the augmented oxidative response of LPS-pretreated cells was investigated. Preincubation with LPS at 0 degrees C prevented priming, but preincubation in the presence of cycloheximide or chelation of extracellular calcium ion did not. Neutrophils preincubated with LPS had slightly decreased numbers of binding sites and equivalent binding affinity for radiolabeled FMLP. Possible changes in the enzyme responsible for the oxidative burst were analyzed by studying NADPH-dependent generation of O-2 by particulate fractions from cells preincubated with LPS or buffer, then stimulated before cell disruption. The fraction prepared from LPS-pretreated neutrophils exhibited greater release of O-2 over a wide range of concentrations of NADPH. The calculated apparent Km for NADPH was equivalent in the two fractions, but the Vmax was increased 2.5-fold in the subcellular fraction from LPS-pretreated cells. These results suggest that LPS could increase neutrophil-mediated host defense or the tissue damage associated with endotoxemia by enhancing the generation of oxygen metabolites by neutrophils. These results also support the concept that the neutrophil is not an end-stage cell in regard to function or metabolic activity.