Transit times of individual human neutrophils through single capillary- sized pores were measured to determine the time-dependent changes in the mechanical behavior of the cells during activation by the chemotactic agent formyl-methionyl-leucyl-phenylalanine (FMLP) and in response to cytochalasin B (CTB) and colchicine. FMLP elicited a two- phase response consisting of a rapid increase in cell stiffness, which peaked between 2 and 3 minutes, followed by a partial recovery of deformability to a level significantly above that of control after 5 minutes. The mechanical changes closely followed changes in F-actin content, although the peak in cell stiffness appeared to lag the F- actin response. Treatment with 3 mumols/L CTB produced a transient decrease in cell rigidity followed by a return to control level in 10 minutes, whereas treatment with 30 mumols/L CTB resulted in a sustained decrease in cell transit times to a level 60% of control. Addition of 3 mumols/L CTB to cells prestimulated with FMLP produced a rapid (1 to 2 minutes) cessation of changes in cellular deformability produced by the FMLP. Colchicine treatment did not decrease cell rigidity, but produced a delayed increase in F-actin content accompanied by increased stiffness of the cells. These results implicate actin as the major determinant of the mechanical behavior of the neutrophil, as measured by whole cell deformability tests. The significant changes in cell deformability that occur in response to fractional changes in F-actin content suggest that changes in the structure of the actin network occur during these processes.