It was possible to define the effects of trehalose dimycolate (TDM), a glycolipid extracted from Mycobacterium tuberculosis, on mouse peritoneal macrophages more precisely using endotoxin-free culture conditions. TDM-elicited macrophages, when assayed in vitro in the absence of endotoxin, were unable to limit tumor growth; however, after a short treatment (4 h) with low doses of lipopolysaccharide (LPS; 1-10 ng/ml), they exhibited a strong cytostatic capacity against P815 mastocytoma cells. Thus, TDM injected in vivo did not activate macrophages fully but it primed them to respond in vitro to low doses of LPS, which provided the final stimulus for activation to antitumor competence. Macrophages elicited by an injection of killed group C Streptococci were also in a primed state; in contrast, thioglycollate-elicited macrophages were in a nonreceptive state. Besides LPS, concanavalin A (5 micrograms/ml), MDP (0.2-1 microgram/ml) and the ionophore A23187 (5 microM) can deliver the activation signal to TDM-primed macrophages. Primed macrophages were found to express several biochemical markers previously described as specific for activated macrophages (low levels of alkaline phosphodiesterase and beta-galactosidase, for example) and, although they were not cytotoxic for tumor cells, they had the capacity to release large amounts of H2O2. However, when pulsed by LPS or MDP, primed macrophages responded by further modifications in their metabolism: the rate of glucose consumption and the labeling of glycoproteins by D-[2-3H]mannose were greatly increased and the secretion of a polypeptide of 22 kDa was enhanced. The activation-associated biochemical markers are thus acquired in two steps. The ability to produce activated oxygen species is expressed earlier than the antitumoral activity.