Phagocytosis of Legionella pneumophila, a bacterial pathogen that multiplies intracellularly in human mononuclear phagocytes and causes Legionnaires' disease, occurs by a novel mechanism. A phagocyte pseudopod coils around the bacterium as the organism is internalized. Human monocytes, alveolar macrophages, and polymorphonuclear leukocytes all phagocytize L. pneumophila by this unusual process, termed "coiling phagocytosis," and these leukocytes phagocytize not only live L. pneumophila in this way, but also formalin-killed, glutaraldehyde-killed, and heat-killed L. pneumophila. In contrast, under the same experimental conditions, monocytes phagocytize Streptococcus pneumoniae, encapsulated and unencapsulated E. coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Pseudomonas alcaligenes, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, and Neisseria meningitidis by conventional phagocytosis. Treatment of L. pneumophila with high-titer anti-L. pneumophila antibody abolishes coiling phagocytosis; such bacteria are internalized by conventional phagocytosis. These experiments raise the possibility that a surface component of L. pneumophila mediates the unusual response by the phagocyte. Such a component, if elaborated in vivo, might be responsible for extrapulmonary manifestations of Legionnaires' disease suspected of being toxin-mediated.