Human and rabbit polymorphonuclear leukocytes contain a bactericidal/permeability-increasing protein (BPI), a potent cytotoxin active specifically against gram-negative bacteria. To identify the cell population(s) producing BPI, we have examined mature and immature human blood cells for BPI by immunofluorescence of intact cells and radioimmunoassay and bioassay of cell extracts. By immunofluorescence and radioimmunoassay of cells from peripheral blood, BPI was detected only in neutrophils; immunofluorescent staining was punctate, indicative of the granule localization of BPI. Nearly all (greater than 90%) BPI was recovered during the subcellular fractionation of neutrophils (N2 cavitation and discontinuous Percoll gradient) in fractions containing primary granules. Little BPI was released from intact cells during degranulation (cytochalasin B and f-Met-Leu-Phe) or could be extracted from isolated granules with salt or weak acid, which suggests that most granule-associated BPI is membrane bound. Double staining of bone marrow smears for BPI and lactoferrin revealed BPI only in neutrophil precursors including (pro)myelocytelike cells lacking lactoferrin, a marker of neutrophil secondary granules. Of several human cell lines tested, only the promyelocytelike HL-60 (and to a lesser extent, KG-1) cells contained BPI. BPI was present in a more mature subpopulation (less than 25%) of untreated HL-60 cells, recognized by surface marker analysis (rosetting with IgG-sensitized sheep RBC, the absence of proliferation-associated cell surface antigen). Induction of neutrophilic or monocytic differentiation caused, respectively, a small (approximately 50%) rise or fall in the BPI content. These findings indicate that BPI is a specific product of the neutrophil lineage and, hence, of the specialized cytotoxic apparatus of the neutrophil that plays an essential role in host defense v gram-negative bacteria.