The phagocytic ingestion of reference strains and clinical isolates of Fusobacterium nucleatum, Porphyromonas gingivalis, and Treponema denticola by polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNs) and the concomitant release of PMN granule proteinases were studied by specific functional and immunological assays. PMNs were incubated with the microorganisms anaerobically at 37 degrees C for indicated time periods. The suspensions and pellets were used for phagocytic ingestion assay and electron microscopic study, respectively. The supernatants were used for the measurements of the amounts and activities of the released PMN enzymes including PMN gelatinase (MMP-9), collagenase (MMP-8), serine proteases (elastase and cathepsin G), and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH). Both fluorescence microscopy and transmission electron microscopy showed that F. nucleatum, P. gingivalis and T. denticola were ingested by the PMNs in comparable numbers. However, measurements of the enzymes released from the triggered PMNs revealed major differences among the three species. High amount of elastase was released from the PMNs triggered by F. nucleatum, but not by P. gingivalis or T. denticola. The treatment of PMNs with P. gingivalis whole cells resulted in the release of gelatinase partly in the 82 kD active form, suggesting proteolytic activation of the degranulated 92 kD proMMP-9. The 82 kD active form of gelatinase was not detected upon triggering the PMNs with F. nucleatum and T. denticola. The PMN-bacteria interaction did not result in release of LDH from triggered PMNs indicating the proteinase release was not due to the PMN cell death. The results show that the susceptibilities of the 3 potentially periodontopathogenic microorganisms, F. nucleatum, P. gingivalis and T. denticola to phagocytic ingestion are not directly related to the amounts and activities of PMN enzymes released during the bacteria-PMN interactions. As PMN degranulation is considered as one of the major pathogenic mechanisms in periodontitis, the observed differences among the microorganisms may be important virulence characteristics of these species.