The chemistry and selected biological activity of lipopolysaccharide (LPS) from Bacteroides gingivalis strains W50, W83, and ATCC 33277 were compared, as well as the role of this molecule as a mediator of selected inflammatory responses. Chemically, the LPSs consisted of 47-58% Lipid A, 5-10% carbohydrate, 0.05% 3-deoxy 2-octulosonic acid, 0.3% heptose, 3.8-5.2% hexosamine, and 2% phosphate. Rhamnose represented the dominant sugar (26-36%), with lesser amounts of glucose (18-34%), galactose (18-25%), mannose (9-12%), glucosamine (7-11%), and galactosamine (2-5%). The major fatty acids were: 13-methyl-tetradecanoate (42-45%), 3-OH-heptadecanoate (21-23%), hexadecanoate (16-19%), and 12-methyl-tetradecanoate (6-8%). SDS-PAGE and sodium deoxycholate-PAGE revealed the LPS to be a smooth chemotype. Differences in migration patterns between the virulent and avirulent strain LPSs also occurred. C3H/HeN macrophages (Mø) exposed to 1 microgram/ml of LPS released 3.2-4.2 ng of prostaglandin E (PGE)/ml of supernatant, representing 236-278% of control. Interleukin-1 (IL-1) activity in C3H/HeN and C3H/HeJ Mø exposed to 50 micrograms of LPS/ml was 382-724% and 270-300% of control, respectively; similar Mø exposed to 10 micrograms of LPS/ml released 1.6-2.0 ng and 0.3-0.5 ng of tumor necrosis factor (TNF)/ml of supernatant, respectively. Maximum TNF release in C3H/HeN Mø occurred in response to 50 micrograms of LPS/ml, and was sustained for up to 96 hours. These results suggest that LPS from the B. gingivalis strains stimulate cytokine production from Mø which, in turn, may play a role in orchestrating the inflammatory response for the development of periodontal diseases.