After priming by a number of different host, bacterial and chemical agents, human neutrophils may be stimulated to produce a greater respiratory burst than would be elicited by the stimulus alone. Other neutrophil functions may be similarly enhanced by pre-exposure to a priming agent. We describe here a new extracellular role for inositol hexakisphosphate (InsP6) as a priming agent for a variety of human neutrophil functional responses. Preincubation of the cells with InsP6 alone (up to 250 microM) has no stimulatory effect upon the basal production of reactive oxygen intermediates but the response to a subsequent stimulus (FMLP, PMA or phagocytic particles) is substantially enhanced. Levels 100-200% higher than 'stimulus only' controls have been recorded. Peak enhancement of the FMLP-induced oxidative response occurs after 1-2 min preincubation with InsP6 and the effect is dose-dependent (maximum at approx. 100 microM InsP6). As others have shown FMLP stimulation of superoxide anion production has no external Ca2+ dependence but the presence of low levels of Ca2+ and Mg2+ (0.1 mM) during priming appears to be an essential requirement for full expression. Reports of intracellular concentrations of InsP6 in mammalian cells in the 30-100 microM range suggest that the local release of this inositol polyphosphate from damaged or effect cells could have a physiologically important modulatory role on neutrophil functions.