Sites of inflammation with prominent macrophage infiltration, such as wounds and certain tumors, are uniquely deficient in free arginine. The effects of arginine availability on macrophage physiology were investigated. When cultured in media containing less than 0.1 mM L-arginine, rat resident peritoneal macrophages exhibited enhanced spreading, tumor cytotoxicity, superoxide production, phagocytosis, and protein synthesis. Thus, arginine concentrations similar to those found in sites of inflammation can augment macrophage functions, while those found in plasma (approximately 0.1 mM) and in commonly used culture media (0.4 to 1.2 mM) are inhibitory. Culture in homoarginine, but not D-arginine, ornithine, citrulline, urea, histidine, or lysine also inhibited macrophage tumor cytotoxicity, indicating the specificity of the effect. In contrast to resident macrophages, the tumor cytotoxicity of peritoneal macrophages obtained after C. parvum injection was suppressed by culture in arginine-deficient media. However, L-arginine-deficient media enhanced all other activation-associated functions in C. parvum-elicited macrophages as in resident cells. Arginine-free wound fluid promoted resident macrophage tumoricidal activity when compared with rat serum, and again, the addition of L-arginine was inhibitory. The marked effects of L-arginine availability on macrophage functions, together with the knowledge that these cells modify the extracellular arginine concentration in sites of inflammation through arginase, provide evidence for an autoregulatory mechanism of macrophage activation.