Previous studies on human eosinophils often have used cells from patients with hypereosinophilia syndrome or parasitosis owing to the difficulty in isolating pure populations of eosinophils from normal individuals. In the present study, human eosinophils were isolated with a purity of 97%, with 70% recovery from normal individuals with blood eosinophil counts of less than 3%. Human eosinophils are denser than neutrophils, but the range of densities of the two cell types overlap, making purification of eosinophils by density-gradient centrifugation difficult. However, if neutrophils were exposed to the chemotactic peptide (f-Met-Leu-Phe), which did not stimulate eosinophils, the neutrophils' density decreased, shifting them away from the density of eosinophils. Whole normal blood anticoagulated with EDTA was incubated at 37 degrees C for 15 minutes with 10(-6) mol/L f-Met-Leu-Phe and then layered over a discontinuous Percoll gradient (65% and 75% in diluted phosphate-buffered saline) and centrifuged at 400 g for 25 minutes at 22 degrees C. The cell layer between the 65% and 75% Percoll was collected and washed, and hypotonic lysis was used to remove erythrocytes. This cell layer contained 97.3 +/- 0.7% eosinophils (N = 8) with a yield of 4.9 X 10(4) eosinophils per milliliter of whole blood, or 70% of the total eosinophil count. The isolated eosinophils were in a quiescent state but responded to Escherichia coli endotoxin- activated serum with shape change and chemotaxis, membrane depolarization, and reduced nitroblue tetrazolium (96.0 +/- 1.0%), when stimulated with phorbol myristate acetate. In phagocytic assays, 89.3 +/- 1.3% of the eosinophils ingested Candida albicans v 96.0% +/- 1.0% of neutrophils. In contrast, the eosinophils did not respond chemotactically, alter membrane potential, or reduce nitroblue tetrazolium when treated with f-Met-Leu-Phe, and studies with f-Met-Leu- [3H]Phe showed that normal eosinophils lacked expression of receptors for f-Met-Leu-Phe. In control studies, normal eosinophils that were not exposed to f-Met-Leu-Phe during purification also failed to respond to f-Met-Leu-Phe, indicating intrinsic differences between normal eosinophils and neutrophils. Thus, exposure of whole blood to f-Met-Leu- Phe, followed by separation on Percoll is a simple method for rapid isolation of normal human eosinophils.