In the disease cystic fibrosis (CF), pulmonary infection with Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a common clinical complication that determines most morbidity and almost all excess mortality. We postulated that in this disease a defect in Pseudomonas-reactive IgG antibodies may contribute to chronic Pseudomonas infections. Bronchoalveolar lavages were performed upon 13 patients with CF, 7 patients with chronic bronchitis characterized by recurrent Pseudomonas infections, and 4 normal volunteers. The levels of various proteins important to host defenses and proteases were determined; enzyme inhibition studies were performed. CF respiratory immunoglobulin levels were significantly elevated when compared with both normals and patients with chronic bronchitis (P less than 0.05). Albumin and transferrin levels were decreased in the CF lung fluids. CF elastolytic activity was strikingly elevated (means = 6.02 micrograms/mg total protein) and the inhibitory profile suggested such activity resembled a serine-proteinase. Alpha-1-antitrypsin antigenic levels were not altered in CF respiratory fluids. There was a tendency for the lavage IgG to fall as elastase levels rose (r = -0.29). IgG opsonins for two Pseudomonas immunotypes were isolated with affinity chromatography for functional and immunochemical studies. Bacterial phagocytic rates in the presence of these Pseudomonas-reactive IgG opsonins derived from CF lavage fluid were depressed (0.3% uptake/unit time) when compared with similarly titered positive controls (uptake = 1.3%/unit time, P less than 0.001). Additionally, normal pulmonary macrophage intracellular killing of Pseudomonas was severely altered in the presence of opsonins derived from CF respiratory fluids. At some time points, less than 30% of the bacteria were killed. CF IgG opsonins contain a cleavage fragment (100,000 D, 5S sedimentation coefficient) with antigenic determinants similar to the Fab portion of IgG. The presence of such a fragment was inversely correlated with phagocytic functional activity. Intact IgG comprised as little as 18% of the CF lavage fluid specimens. Aliquots of intact human IgG, when mixed with the CF opsonins, augmented Pseudomonas uptake and improved intracellular killing. Conversely, peptide fragments of IgG opsonins, which are proteolytically derived in vitro, duplicated in our system the defect observed with opsonins derived from CF lung fluids; bacterial uptake was inversely related to the concentration of F(ab')2 and to a greater degree, to Fc present in the opsonic mixture. We concluded that IgG respiratory opsonins are fragmented, inhibiting phagocytosis and serving a permissive role in the chronic Pseudomonas pulmonary infection in the disease CF.