Little is known regarding the interaction of Bordetella pertussis with polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNL) or the role PMNL play as an initial line of defense against B. pertussis infection. An in vitro system was developed to establish conditions for the study of phagocytosis and killing of virulent B. pertussis by human PMNL. Phagocytosis of B. pertussis strains BP504, BP165, and BP338 occurred by opsonization with anti-B. pertussis antibody, while autologous normal human sera did not induce significant phagocytosis. In PMNL bacterial killing assays virulent B. pertussis strains survived PMNL bactericidal activities while Escherichia coli controls were readily killed. Electron microscopy studies using acid phosphatase as a lysosomal marker strongly suggested that B. pertussis inhibits phagosome-lysosome fusion in PMNL. These results indicate that virulent B. pertussis strains are capable of surviving intracellularly within PMNL and that such survival may be due to inhibition of phagosome-lysosome fusion.