A modified zymosan preparation was used to probe the interaction of particulate stimuli with human neutrophils (PMNs). After extraction with alkali and detergent, the zymosan particles retained their ability to be opsonized in serum and to stimulate PMNs. Serum-treated zymosan (STZ) induced dose-dependent superoxide (O2-) production and membrane potential depolarization in the range of 1 to 10 mg/mL of STZ. The rate and extent of secretion of lysozyme and beta-glucuronidase were also dose-dependent in the range of 1 to 10 mg/mL of STZ. Cytochemical studies using nitroblue tetrazolium, however, showed that 92% of PMNs were stimulated to produce O2- at 0.1 mg/mL of STZ. The dose response of O2- production induced by STZ is therefore due to increasing O2- production by individual PMNs and not to the stimulation of more PMNs to produce O2-. Evidence for O2- production was found only in the area of PMN-zymosan contact, suggesting a mechanism for the graded responses of PMNs treated with particulate stimuli. In order to determine the nature of the dose dependence of depolarization (a measure of PMN activation), PMNs equilibrated with the fluorescent probe 3,3′- dipentyloxacarbocyanine were analyzed by flow cytometry. The results demonstrate that STZ induces a dose-dependent depolarization of the membrane potential of individual PMNs. These results also demonstrate that increasing concentrations of STZ can induce increasing PMN responses even when all of the PMNs have been activated. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that receptor-mediated particulate stimulation of PMNs is a phenomenon that results in graded PMN responses.