In human neutrophils, the synthetic lipopeptide, N-palmitoyl-S-[2,3- bis(palmitoyloxy-(2RS)-propyl]-(R)-cysteinyl-(S)-seryl-(S)-lysyl-( S)-lysyl-(S) -lysyl-(S)-lysine [Pam3CysSer(Lys)4], activates NADPH-oxidase catalyzed superoxide (O2-) formation through pertussis-toxin-sensitive and pertussis-toxin-insensitive mechanisms (Seifert, R., Schultz, G., Richter-Freund, M., Metzger, J., Wiesmüller, K.-H., Jung, G., Bessler, W. G. & Hauschildt, S. (1990) Biochem. J. 267, 795-802). We studied the effects of lipopeptides on differentiation of HL-60 leukemic cells. Pam3CysSer(Lys)4 enhanced phorbol-12-myristate-13-acetate-induced O2- formation (presumably through the expression of components of NADPH oxidase) in a concentration-dependent manner with a half-maximal effect at 100 ng/ml and a maximum at 1 microgram/ml. The effect of the lipopeptide was evident after 24 h and reached a plateau after 48 h. (2S,6S)-2-Palmitoylamino-6,7- bis(palmitoyloxy)heptanoyl-(S)-seryl-(S)-lysyl-(S)-lysyl-(S) -lysyl-(S)-lysine enhanced O2- formation as well. The effects of Pam3CysSer(Lys)4 were potentiated by dibutyryl cAMP, dimethyl sulfoxide, retinoic acid, 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3, interferon-gamma and tumor-necrosis-factor-alpha. Pertussis toxin, but not its B-oligomer, partially inhibited enhanced O2- formation induced by Pam3CysSer(Lys)4. O2- formation induced by arachidonic acid and gamma-hexachlorocyclohexane were more sensitive to inhibition by pertussis toxin than O2- formation induced by phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate. Enhanced O2- formation induced by dibutyryl cAMP was not affected by pertussis toxin. Unlike ATP, histamine, prostaglandin E1 and the beta-adrenergic agonist, isoproterenol, Pam3CysSer(Lys)4 did not increase cytosolic Ca2+ [( Ca2+]i) in undifferentiated HL-60 cells. Histamine but not lipopeptides stimulated high-affinity GTPase of guanine-nucleotide-binding proteins in membranes of undifferentiated HL-60 cells. In Pam3CysSer(Lys)4-differentiated HL-60 cells, the responsiveness to the [Ca2+]i-increasing agonists, N-formyl-L-methionyl-L-leucyl-L-phenylalanine, C5a and leukotriene B4, was increased, whilst the responsiveness to prostaglandin E1 and isoproterenol was decreased. Pam3CysSer(Lys)4 did not inhibit proliferation of HL-60 cells but decreased transferrin receptor expression and increased C3bi receptor expression. Pertussis toxin did not affect proliferation and expression of transferrin and C3bi receptors. Dibutyryl cAMP was considerably more effective than Pam3CysSer(Lys)4 at inducing alterations in the above parameters. Our results suggest that (a) Pam3CysSer(Lys)4 induces incomplete functional differentiation of HL-60 cells through a mechanism which does not depend on a rise in [Ca2+]i and is different from that of other differentiation-inducing substances and (b) the mechanism by which Pam3CysSer(Lys)4 induces differentiation involves pertussis-toxin-sensitive and pertussis-toxin-insensitive mechanisms.