We have studied the interaction between virulent Legionella pneumophila and human alveolar macrophages, the resident phagocytes at the site of infection in Legionnaires' disease. L. pneumophila multiplied 2.5-5 logs within 3 d, as measured by colony forming units, when incubated with freshly explanted alveolar macrophages in monolayer culture. At the peak of bacterial multiplication, the alveolar macrophage monolayers were destroyed. L. pneumophila multiplied more rapidly in 4-d-old than in freshly explanted alveolar macrophages. Inside alveolar macrophages, L. pneumophila were located within membrane-bound vacuoles whose cytoplasmic sides were studded with ribosomes. Alveolar macrophages that were incubated with concanavalin A (Con A) stimulated human mononuclear cell supernatants (cytokines), inhibited L. pneumophila multiplication, and the degree of inhibition was proportional to the concentration of Con A supernatant added. Anti-L. pneumophila antibody in conjunction with complement promoted phagocytosis of L. pneumophila by alveolar macrophages. By electron microscopy, most (75%) of the phagocytized L. pneumophila were intracellular. However, freshly explanted alveolar macrophages were able to kill only 0-10% of an innoculum of L. pneumophila even in the presence of antibody and complement. At the same time, alveolar macrophages also killed opsonized Escherichia coli poorly. Increasing the ratio of macrophages to bacteria, adhering the macrophages to microcarrier beads, or preincubating the macrophages for 24 or 48 h with Con A supernatants failed to augment alveolar macrophage killing of opsonized E. coli. Corticosteroids appear to increase patient susceptibility to Legionnaires' disease. However, pretreatment of alveolar macrophages and monocytes with hydrocortisone had no influence on intracellular multiplication of L. pneumophila or on the inhibition of that multiplication by activated alveolar macrophages or monocytes. Hydrocortisone did impair cytokine-induced aggregation of alveolar macrophages. These findings demonstrate that L. pneumophila multiplies in human alveolar macrophages and that they do so within a ribosome-lined phagosome; that freshly explanted alveolar macrophages kill few L. pneumophila even in the presence of antibody and complement; that activated alveolar macrophages inhibit L. pneumophila multiplication; and that steroids do not exert a direct suppressive effect on the anti-L. pneumophila activity of activated or nonactivated alveolar macrophages. Our findings indicate that alveolar macrophages may play a central role in both the pathogenesis of Legionnaires' disease and in host defense against it. This paper shows that human resident macrophage can be activated to a higher state of antimicrobial capacity and that the human alveolar macrophage can serve as an effector call in call-mediated immunity.