The cytolytic capacity of monocytes per se and stimulated monocytes has been documented to only a limited extent, and when observed has been ascribed to the generation of a variety of cytolytic molecular entities. In the present study we have examined de novo human monocyte-mediated tumor cytotoxicity and that induced by the agent 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA). Cytolytic function was analyzed by reference to the release of [111In] oxine from two prelabeled tumor cell lines, K562 and U937, in a 16-hr assay in the presence of serum to more closely mimic in vivo circumstances. Observed cytolysis was clearly related to TPA concentration and effector cell number. Maximal cytolysis was obtained with TPA at 5 ng/ml, at which specific releases were 43% +/- 6 and 18% +/- 5 (mean +/- 1 SEM) at an effector cell to target cell (E:T) ratio of 2.5:1 and 65% +/- 6, and 41% +/- 12 at an E:T ratio of 20:1, for K562 and U937, respectively. In contrast, unstimulated monocytes expressed minimal cytolytic activity, or at best a low cytotoxic effect at high cellular ratios. When TPA-stimulated monocyte-mediated cytolysis was examined, catalase (2750 U/ml) inhibited K562 and U937 cytolysis by 92% and 84%, respectively; superoxide dismutase (300 U/ml) only inhibited cytotoxicity by 17% and 24%, respectively, implicating a central role of H2O2 rather than superoxide ions. Sodium azide (1 mM), an inhibitor of myeloperoxidase, did not diminish cytolysis; in contrast, it increased K562 and U937 cytolysis by 34% and 57%. This increased cytotoxicity was observed for K562 at low levels of cytotoxicity. These data tend to dismiss an essential role of the H2O2-halide-myeloperoxidase pathway of cytolysis. The OH scavengers, histidine (20 mM) and ethanol (40 mM), did not affect K562 killing; mannitol (50 mM), another OH scavenger, had only a slight inhibitory effect (23%). Finally, H2O2 generated by a glucose-glucose oxidase system directly mediated K562 killing and, to a lesser extent, U937 lysis. These results point strongly towards the role of: 1) a myeloperoxidase-independent mechanism of cytotoxicity, with 2) H2O2 as a key mediator of the cytolytic mechanism, and 3) a limited role of O2.- in synergy with H2O2 in the cytolytic activity of monocytes, and suggest that significant cytolytic function requires an inductive event.