The Leu-8 molecule, the human homologue of the murine MEL-14 peripheral lymph node homing receptor, is expressed on neutrophils in both species and may be important in localization of cells to sites of inflammation. Most circulating human neutrophils express the Leu-8 molecule, and activation of neutrophils with phorbol myristate acetate causes a rapid decline in Leu-8 membrane fluorescence staining within 15 minutes. Northern blot analysis of total cellular RNA from neutrophils demonstrated two species of Leu-8 messenger RNA, a major one of 2.4 kb and a minor one of 1.9 kb. Because two different Leu-8 cDNA clones were obtained from human lymphocytes that were predicted to encode both transmembrane and phosphatidylinositol (PI)-anchored forms of the molecule, experiments were conducted to determine whether Leu-8 is anchored to neutrophils by a PI-anchor. There was a slight decrease in expression of Leu-8 on neutrophils when they were treated with PI- specific phospholipase C (PI-PLC). However, Leu-8 was abundant on neutrophils obtained from a patient with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria. To determine the fate of the Leu-8 molecule during cell activation, neutrophils were labeled with 125I-anti-Leu-8. During activation antibody was rapidly lost from the cell surface and was not internalized, suggesting that Leu-8 is released from the cell membrane during cell activation. When cell extracts of neutrophils were compared with extracts of lymphoid cells by sodium dodecyl sulfate- polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis and immunoblotting, the Leu-8 species expressed on neutrophils had a significantly higher and more variable relative mobility (70 to 120 Kd for neutrophils v 70 Kd for Jurkat T cells). In addition, Leu-8 molecules were detected in the supernatants of activated neutrophils. These results indicate that human neutrophils express a high-molecular-weight form of the Leu-8 molecule that has a conventional transmembrane anchor and is rapidly released from the membrane during activation. The loss of the Leu-8 membrane glycoprotein during activation may be a mechanism for rapid alteration of neutrophil adhesion characteristics.