The density distribution of human mononuclear blood leukocytes was studied in order to define the optimal conditions for the separation of monocytes and lymphocytes by isopycnic centrifugation. Under standardized conditions, two populations of cells with partially overlapping, normally distributed densities were consistently found. The cells with the lowest density were recognized as monocytes, using phagocytosis and size distribution analysis as criteria. Since the density of monocytes continuously increased during the centrifugation, optimal separation of monocytes and lymphocytes could only be achieved by limiting the time of centrifugation to 10 min at 2200 g and 4 degrees C. The separation on discontinuous density gradients decreased when the load exceeded 8 X 10(6) mononuclear cells per sq cm. Analysis of the composition of the two cell populations obtained after separation on a three-layer discontinuous gradient revealed that the contamination of the monocytes with lymphocytes was due to the partial overlapping density distributions of both cell types. A small and a large scale method for isolation of monocytes from blood on discontinuous density gradients are presented. Under the described conditions, a preparation of functionally intact monocytes can be obtained which is comparable, both in yield and purity, to those obtained by methods based on surface adherence without the drawbacks of the latter methods.