Cells of the mononuclear phagocyte system arise from circulating blood monocytes (MO) that undergo further maturation on leaving the vasculature and migration into the various tissues and body cavities. This terminal differentiation step is also observed in vitro when blood MO are cultured in the presence of serum. Yet, the inducing signals present in serum are not defined. We have established primary cultures from elutriation-purified blood MO and found that the active metabolite of vitamin D3 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 (1,25(OH)2D3) could induce maturation of MO to macrophages (MAC) in the absence of any serum proteins. Cells were cultured for 7 days with AB-group serum or 1,25(OH)2D3, respectively, and MO maturation analyzed by morphology, functional activity, and the expression of lineage-restricted maturation-associated antigens (MAX.1, MAX.3). At an optimal concentration of 10(-8) mol/L, 1,25(OH)2D3 promoted the development of fully differentiated MAC whose phenotype and functional competence in terms of cytokine release (tumor necrosis factor alpha, interleukin-6, fibronectin, and lysozyme) was comparable with MAC grown in serum. In conclusion, our data may add to the immunoregulatory potential of 1,25(OH)2D3, which may play an essential role in the ontogeny of the mononuclear phagocyte system.