The results from a number of clinical and experimental studies have suggested that during endotoxemia, suppression of adrenocortical steroidogenesis may occur. We have examined the possibility that macrophages are the source of a factor that suppresses adrenocortical steroidogenesis. Resident and peptone-elicited peritoneal exudate macrophages (PEM) from C3HeB/FeJ mice were incubated for 4 hr at 37 degrees C in the presence or absence of T cell hybridoma-derived lymphokine (LK) that contained high concentrations of MAF activity (assessed by induction of nonspecific tumoricidal activity in PEM). The LK was removed by rinsing, and fresh medium was added, followed by Salmonella minnesota R595 LPS (final concentration 10 micrograms/ml). After 18 hr at 37 degrees C the PEM supernatants and control medium from flasks without cells were harvested and stored at -20 degrees C. Explanted rabbit adrenocortical cells in 96-well plates were exposed to 30 microliters of PEM supernatant or control medium and ACTH (10 or 100 mU/ml) in a final volume of 120 microliters for 3 consecutive days. The adrenocortical cell supernatants were harvested each day, followed by replenishment of medium, PEM supernatant, and ACTH. Fluorogenic steroid production in wells that received control medium or supernatants from PEM not treated with LPS was normal (0.22 microgram +/- 0.010 (SD) per 5 X 10(4) cells). However, as much as 75 to 95% suppression of steroidogenesis was observed in wells that received supernatants from PEM treated with LK and LPS, compared to 40% suppression in wells that received supernatant from PEM treated with LPS alone. Continued exposure (over 3 days) of adrenocortical cells to supernatants from LPS-treated PEM resulted in progressively decreasing response to ACTH. Comparable suppressive activity was observed in supernatants from LPS-treated bone marrow-derived macrophages. In further experiments, suppression was observed in wells that were pretreated (22 hr) with the appropriate PEM supernatant, and evidence was obtained that the suppressive activity was not due to carry-over LPS. Finally, results from control experiments demonstrated that suppressive PEM supernatants neither inactivate ACTH nor interfere with the assay of fluorogenic steroids. Thus, these results suggest that during endotoxemia, products from LPS-stimulated macrophages may suppress adrenocortical function.