Previous studies have shown that recombinant interferon gamma (IFN-gamma), crude T cell supernatants, or appropriate T-cell lines can cause total inhibition of the growth of M. tuberculosis inside murine peritoneal macrophages. In similar experiments with human monocytes much smaller effects are seen. This could be due to the relative immaturity of these cells. Because dihydroxy vitamin D3 (1,25-(OH)2 D3) can cause phenotypic differentiation of immature leukemic lines into macrophage-like cells, we have explored the possibility that exposure to cholecalciferol metabolites in vitro might increase the ability of monocytes to control proliferation of M. tuberculosis, or cause monocytes to mature into cells able to respond appropriately to IFN-gamma. Incubation of monocytes with three cholecalciferol metabolites induced anti-tuberculosis activity to an extent that correlated with their binding affinities to the intracellular receptor protein for the derivatives. 1,25-(OH)2 D3 also primed monocytes for phorbol myristate acetate-triggered reduction of nitroblue tetrazolium. The effects were additive rather than synergistic with those of IFN-gamma. Monocytes incubated with IFN-gamma developed 25-OH D3 1-hydroxylase activity, detected by conversion of tritiated 25-(OH) D3 to a more polar metabolite which coeluted with 1,25-(OH)2 D3 on straight and reverse-phase HPLC. The latter is a more active form in vivo. These findings help to explain claims for the efficacy of vitamin D in the treatment of some forms of tuberculosis, and also the occasional finding of raised serum calcium, and disturbed vitamin D metabolism in these patients.