Human peripheral blood neutrophils are primed, or enabled to respond to formyl peptide, by prior exposure to bacterial lipopolysaccharide (LPS). The activity of LPS and the size of its aggregates are altered by plasma constituents such as high density lipoprotein (HDL) and the recently discovered acute phase reactant lipopolysaccharide binding protein (LBP) Tobias et al.: J. Exp. Med. 164,777, 1986]. The ability of LPS, LPS-LBP, and LPS-HDL complexes to activate a number of cellular responses have been compared. LPS-LBP and LPS-HDL were prepared using LBP and HDL from rabbit serum. LPS from Salmonella minnesota Re595 and its LPS-LBP and LPS-HDL complexes differed in their ability to prime PMN O2- production in response to formyl peptide (f-Nle-Leu-Phe-Nle-Tyr-Leu [FNLPNTL]). Human PMN prepared under conditions in which O2- production is minimal (less than 1 nmol O2-/10(6) PMN/10 min) after exposure to 10(-7) M FNLPNTL can be primed with 0.1-100 ng/ml LPS in a dose- and time-dependent manner to produce up to 12 nmol O2-/10(6) PMN/10 min. LBP complexation accelerated the priming induced by LPS, whereas HDL complexation retarded it. Priming was accompanied by a parallel two- to threefold increase in formyl peptide receptor number as determined by FACS analysis of fluoresceinated FNLPNTL binding and SDS-PAGE autoradiographic analysis of photoaffinity ligand binding. Thus binding of LPS to plasma proteins changes the response of the PMS to LPS and may represent one way in which the response of the PMN is regulated during infection. Since LBP concentrations change during an acute phase response, complexation of LPS with LBP is a mechanism that may regulate neutrophil responses in vivo during inflammation.