Protein serine/threonine (ser/thr) phosphorylation is an early signaling event in macrophage activation. We investigated the changes in stress-activated protein kinase/c-Jun NH2-terminal kinase (SAPK/JNK) activity and effects of phosphatase inhibition on alveolar macrophage (AM) function in rats challenged with intratracheal endotoxin. Animals were sacrificed 90 min post intratracheal lipopolysaccharide (LPS, 100 microg/rat) challenge. AMs were incubated with or without phosphatase inhibitors at 37 degrees C for 30 min. Phagocytosis, CD18 expression, SAPK/JNK and phosphatase activities of AMs were determined. LPS challenge activated SAPK/JNK activity and enhanced phagocytosis of AMs without altering phosphatase activity in these cells. Inhibition of phosphatase 1 and 2A activity with okadaic acid and calyculin A exerted a bi-phasic effect on AM phagocytic function. Okadaic acid at a concentration of 1 microM increased the mean channel fluorescence intensity (MCF) and the percentage of cells engaged in phagocytosis (percent phagocytosis) in AMs from saline-treated rats. This inhibitor at concentrations of 0.5 and 1 microM enhanced both the MCF and percent phagocytosis of AMs from LPS-challenged rats. Calyculin A at a concentration of 10 nM increased the MCF phagocytosis of AMs from LPS-challenged rats. At higher concentrations (20 and 30 nM), calyculin A showed a suppression on both the MCF and percent phagocytosis of AMs in both saline and LPS groups. AM CD18 expression was not altered following LPS challenge. Phosphatase inhibitors at doses that enhanced AM phagocytosis showed either no effect (okadaic acid) or inhibition (calyculin A) of AM CD18 expression. These results suggest that ser/thr phosphorylation and dephosphorylation participate in mediating the phagocytic response of AMs to LPS.