It has been well established that human mononuclear phagocytes have the capacity to produce 1,25-dihydroxy-vitamin D3 [1,25(OH)3D3] and express the vitamin D receptor (VDR). However, 1 alpha-hydroxylase activity and VDR receptor expression during differentiation of monocytes (MO) into mature macrophages (MAC) have not been previously examined. The in vitro maturation of blood MO can serve as a model for the in vivo transformation of immature blood MO into MAC. Here, when cultured in the presence of serum, MO undergo characteristic changes in morphology, antigenic phenotype, and functional activity consistent with their differentiation into MAC. We serially measured 1,25(OH)2D3 and 24,25- dihydroxyvitamin D3 [24,25(OH)2D3] synthesis, specific [3H]-1,25(OH)2D3 binding, and VDR mRNA levels during in vitro maturation of MO into MAC and correlated these functions with maturation-associated changes in the phenotype (MAX.1 and CD71) and secretory repertoire (interleukin-1 beta [IL-1 beta], neopterin) of the cells. MO showed only little conversion of 25-(OH)D3 into 1,25(OH)2D3 (1.4 +/- 0.4 pmol/10(6) cells/6 h, n = 5) that increased gradually during maturation into MAC at day 8 of culture (5.3 +/- 4.3 pmol/10(6) cells/6 h, n = 5). Interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) increased baseline 1,25(OH)2D3-synthesis approximately twofold during all phases of differentiation. The time course of increased 1,25(OH)2D3-synthesis correlated with enhanced secretion of neopterin and expression of MAX.1 and CD71. The addition of exogenous 1,25(OH)2D3 did not influence constitutive 1,25(OH)2D3 synthesis, but IFN-gamma-stimulated production was suppressed to baseline levels. Exogenous 1,25(OH)2D3 also stimulated 24,25(OH)2D3 synthesis in freshly isolated MO (from 1.0 +/- 0.8 pmol/6 h to 5.6 +/- 0.9 pmol), whereas matured MAC showed no 24,25(OH)2D3 synthesis. Furthermore, we examined the expression of the VDR during the differentiation process. VDR mRNA and protein were constitutively expressed in MO, whereas VDR was downregulated in mature MAC on both the mRNA and protein levels. Homologous upregulation of VDR protein by 1,25(OH)2D3 occurred in MO and, to a lesser degree, in MAC. In contrast, VDR mRNA concentrations were not influenced by 1,25(OH)2D3. Taken together, our results show that MO into MAC differentiation in vitro is associated with (1) an enhanced capacity to synthesize 1,25(OH)2D3, (2) a loss of 24,25(OH)2D3-synthesizing activity, and (3) a decrease in the expression of VDR mRNA and protein. Because 1,25(OH)2D3 was shown to induce differentiation of MO into MAC, our data sugest an autoregulatory mechanism of MO/MAC generation by 1,25(OH)2D3.