Human granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) enhances numerous functions of mature neutrophils (PMN) including phagocytosis, superoxide responses to chemotaxins, antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity, and expression of complement receptors. A central question concerns whether the mechanism of enhancement involves quantitative increases in the response of all cells v subpopulation recruitment. The effects of GM-CSF on individual cell light scatter changes, membrane potential, and oxidant responses induced by the chemoattractant N-formyl-methionyl-leucyl-phenylalanine (FMLP) were assessed by flow cytometry and by scoring individual cells for nitroblue tetrazolium dye (NBT) reduction. GM-CSF produced a dose- and time-dependent shift in forward light scatter that was very similar in character to that seen with FMLP or leukotriene B4 stimulation. Although not capable of depolarizing the cells directly, GM-CSF primed PMNs for enhanced membrane potential responses to FMLP by significantly increasing the proportion of depolarizing cells when compared with diluent-treated controls after a 60-minute incubation at 37 degrees C (79.4% +/- 3.4% v 29.5% +/- 4.7% GM-CSF v diluent, mean +/- SE, P less than .005, n = 11). Subpopulation recruitment by GM-CSF treatment was also demonstrated by the FMLP-elicited NBT test. Taken together, these results indicate that GM-CSF can modulate the function of mature PMN by enhancing the proportion of responsive cells.