The interaction between mycobacterial phenolic glycolipids (PGLs) and phagocytes was studied. Human neutrophils were allowed to interact with each of four purified mycobacterial PGLs and the neutrophil production of reactive oxygen metabolites was followed kinetically by luminol-/isoluminol-amplified chemiluminescence. The PGLs from Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Mycobacterium kansasii, respectively, were shown to stimulate the production of oxygen metabolites, while PGLs from Mycobacterium marinum and Mycobacterium bovis BCG, respectively, were unable to induce an oxidative response. Periodate treatment of the M. tuberculosis PGL decreased the production of oxygen radicals, showing the importance of the PGL carbohydrate moiety for the interaction. The activation, however, could not be inhibited by rhamnose or fucose, indicating a complex interaction which probably involves more than one saccharide unit. This is in line with the fact that the activating PGLs from M. tuberculosis and M. kansasii contain tri- and tetrasaccharides, respectively, while the nonactivating PGLs from M. marinum and M. bovis BCG each contain a monosaccharide. The complement receptor 3 (CR3) has earlier been shown to be of importance for the phagocyte binding of mycobacteria, but did not appear to be involved in the activation of neutrophils by PGLs. The subcellular localization of the reactive oxygen metabolites formed was related to the way in which the glycolipids were presented to the cells.