During an immune response a multitude of lymphokines are produced which modulate the function of mononuclear phagocytes. In this study, we investigated possible additive, synergistic, or antagonistic effects of three lymphokines, IL-4 (1-100 U/ml, 0.01-1 ng/ml), interferon-gamma (IFN) (1-100 U/ml) and IL-2 (30-300 U/ml) on Fc receptors (FcR1 and FcR2), complement receptors (CR3 and CR4), and HLA-D antigens (HLA-DR and HLA-DQ) on human monocytes and macrophages. Exposure of monocytes to IL-4 alone resulted in changes in the expression of all these receptors. Both FcR1 and FcR2 were downregulated in a dose-dependent manner while the expression of CR3, CR4, HLA-DR, and HLA-DQ was increased. Antagonistic effects of IL-4 and IFN were observed on FcR1 and FcR2; IL-4-induced downregulation of the FcR1 and FcR2 was inhibited by IFN, and vice versa, IFN-induced upregulation of FcR1 and FcR2 was inhibited by IL-4. Phagocytosis of particulate immune complexes (EAs) as well as production of superoxide (O2-) in response to EAs were inhibited by IL-4, and the inhibition was reversed by IFN. Antagonistic effects of IL-4 and IFN were also observed on CR3 and CR4 expression. Additive effects of IL-4 and IFN were on the other hand seen on HLA-DR and HLA-DQ expression as well as on O2- production in response to stimulation with phorbol ester (PMA). The addition of IL-2 to IL-4 and/or IFN-containing cultures had no further modulatory effect on receptor expression or O2- production. In vitro matured macrophages (M phi) had a similar response pattern to IL-4 and IFN as the freshly isolated monocytes. Alveolar macrophages (AM phi), on the other hand, did not modulate FcR1 and HLA-DQ in response to IL-4, and downregulated FcR2 in response to IFN. Antagonistic effects of the two factors were only seen on CR expression. These results imply that FcR expression and function on monocytes and inflammatory macrophages may be in sensitive balance with the relative concentrations of IL-4 and IFN in the immune environment. FcRs on AM phi are less responsive to modulation by these lymphokines.