Human peripheral blood mononuclear cells are analyzed for preproenkephalin gene expression and peptide processing. Met-enkephalin immunoreactivity as detected with a specific antiserum is found in the cytoplasm of monocytes but not in T lymphocytes. Secretion of met-enkephalin was analyzed with an RIA that is specific for the met-enkephalin pentapeptide. Unfractionated PBMC spontaneously released 40 pg/ml met-enkephalin and this increased two- to fourfold after stimulation with PHA. Lower levels (less than 100 pg/ml) of met-enkephalin were detected in supernatants from purified T cells that were activated with PHA and IL-2. In contrast, stimulation of purified monocytes with LPS or PMA resulted in the release of up to 600 pg/ml of the processed peptide. To examine whether T cells can produce met-enkephalin precursor peptides, T cell conditioned media were treated with trypsin and carboxypeptidase-B, which is known to release met-enkephalin from the propeptide. This increased levels of met-enkephalin to 400 pg/ml, indicating that lymphocytes secrete the propeptide but do not process it to met-enkephalin. The 1.4-kb preproenkephalin mRNA is detected in activated blood mononuclear cells and in purified monocytes and T cells. To determine whether monocytes or lymphocytes express met-enkephalin in vivo, lymphoid tissues were analyzed by immunohistochemistry. In human spleen tissue, positive cells were found in the red pulp but not in the follicles, which is also consistent with met-enkephalin expression in monocytes. In summary, these results show that human peripheral blood mononuclear cells express preproenkephalin mRNA and that monocytes, but not T cells, process the propeptide to metenkephalin.