The ability of neutrophils to migrate through three-dimensional (3-D) tissues in response to chemical stimuli is critical to their host defense function. However, studies characterizing stimulated migration in vitro have been largely limited to two-dimensional (2-D) surfaces. In this study, we have employed direct observation methods to quantify human neutrophil migration in 3-D fibrin gel using time-lapse video microscopy and automated cell tracking methods. A novel 3-D conjoined gel assay was developed to establish experimentally quantifiable and theoretically predictable diffusion gradients of chemotactic factors. This assay was used to measure objective migration parameters, namely the random motility and chemotaxis coefficients, in response to the cytokine, interleukin-8 (IL-8). The random motility coefficient, mu, showed a biphasic dependence on IL-8 concentration with a maximum of 1.1 x 10(-8) cm2/s at 5 x 10(-8) M IL-8; no significant motility was observed in the absence of IL-8. We further established the dependence of cell orientation bias, phi, on the concentration and gradient steepness (i.e., specific gradient, SG) of IL-8. Results indicate that phi increases with increasing SG, provided the concentration is maintained sufficiently low, which we conjecture to result from minimizing IL-8 receptor down-regulation. The chemotaxis coefficient, chi, was maximum at an intermediate SG for both IL-8 concentrations studied. We also examined the applicability of this assay to estimate mu and chi from indirect measurements of chemotaxis, namely the simpler measurement of cell redistribution after a prescribed incubation time, as opposed to direct cell tracking measurements. By virtue of measuring chi, this is the first quantitatively objective study of mammalian cell chemotaxis in a physiologically relevant 3-D gel and, in particular, of neutrophil chemotaxis on any substratum in response to the physiologically relevant chemotactic factor, IL-8.