Multinucleated giant cells of mononuclear phagocyte origin (monocyte or macrophage polykaryons [MPs] ) are seen in numerous different normal and pathologic states. We have previously shown that gamma interferon (IFN-gamma) induces fusion of uninuclear monocytes (UMs) to form MPs. This study was designed to characterize these IFN-gamma-induced MPs. Control and IFN-gamma-treated UMs and MPs did not have peroxidase activity, but they stained intensely for nonspecific esterase and acid phosphatase. The esterase of UMs and MPs was abolished by fluoride, but the acid phosphatase of UMs and MPs was only minimally decreased by tartrate. The phagocytosis of polystyrene spheres and glutaraldehyde- fixed erythrocytes by MPs was moderately depressed as compared with control or treated UMs, whereas the phagocytosis of IgG-coated erythrocytes was markedly depressed. Populations of control monocytes produced less H2O2 in response to 200 nmol/L of phorbol myristate acetate than did IFN-gamma-treated monocytes (37 +/- 7 v 199 +/- 29 nmol/h per milligram of cell protein). However, when examined microscopically, individual MPs had less ability to reduce NBT (18% +/- 5% positive for MP, 91% +/- 3% for treated UMs, and 67% +/- 3% for control UMs). The surface membrane antigens Leu M3, OKM1 (C3bi receptor), DU-HL60′3, DU-HL60′4, TE5, and V1 were not expressed or were expressed poorly in MPs; they were expressed normally in control and treated UMs. However, HLA-DR expression was increased in treated UMs and MPs. The binding of the lectins RCA, Con A, WGA, DBA, UEA, and PNA was equivalent in all cells. Thus, MPs formed by fusion of UMs in vitro after culture with IFN-gamma differ in several features from UMs.