LPS-binding protein (LBP) binds with high affinity (Kd approximately equal to 10(-9) M) to lipid A of LPS isolated from rough (R)- or smooth (S)-form Gram-negative bacteria as well as to lipid A partial structures such as precursor IVA. To define the role of LBP in regulating responses to LPS we have examined TNF release in rabbit peritoneal exudate macrophages (M phi) stimulated with LPS or with complete or partial lipid A preparations in the presence or absence of LBP. In the presence of LBP, M phi showed increased sensitivity to S- and R-form LPS as well as synthetic lipid A. Compared with LPS or lipid A, up to 1000-fold greater concentrations of partial lipid A structures were required to induce TNF production. However, consistent with our previous observations that these structures bind to LBP, TNF production was increased in the presence of LBP. In contrast, LBP did not enhance or inhibit TNF production produced by heat-killed Staphylococcus aureus, peptidoglycan isolated from S. aureus cell walls, or PMA. Potentiated M phi responsiveness to LPS was observed with as little as 1 ng LBP/ml. Heat-denatured LBP (which no longer binds LPS), BPI (an homologous LPS-binding protein isolated from neutrophils), or other serum proteins were without effect. LBP-treated M phi also showed a more rapid induction of cytokine mRNA (TNF and IL-1 beta), higher steady-state mRNA levels and increased TNF mRNA stability. These data provide additional evidence that LBP is part of a highly specific recognition system controlling M phi responses to LPS. The effects of LBP are lipid A dependent and importantly, extend to LPS preparations isolated from bacteria of R- and S-form phenotype.