The epidemic form of the hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) has been associated with a verocytotoxin producing Escherichia coli infection. Endothelial cell damage of glomeruli and arterioles of the kidney plays a central role in the pathogenesis of HUS. A number of observations in vivo and in vitro indicate that inflammatory mediators contribute to this process. In this study we investigated the binding of 125I- verocytotoxin-1 (VT-1) to freshly isolated human nonadherent monocytes as well as the nature of the ligand to which VT-1 binds on monocytes. On the average, freshly isolated monocytes have 0.07 x 10(5) specific binding sites for 125I-VT-1 per cell. Preincubation of nonadherent monocytes with bacterial lipopolysaccharide (LPS) caused a 23- to 30- fold increase of specific binding sites for VT-1 as shown by Scatchard plot analysis. Thin-layer chromatography of extracted neutral glycolipids of the cells and subsequent binding of 125I-VT-1 showed that human monocytes bind VT-1 to a globotriaosylceramide (Gb3) species that is different from that found on endothelial cells, probably a short-chain fatty acyl Gb3 or an alpha-OH-Gb3. In addition, we evaluated the functional consequences of VT-1 binding to human monocytes by investigating the effects of VT-1 on the total protein synthesis and, specifically, the production of the cytokines interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta), tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF- alpha), IL-6, and IL-8. We observed that VT-1 did not inhibit overall protein synthesis, nor under basal conditions, neither after stimulation with LPS, in contrast to previous observations with endothelial cells. Furthermore, we found that VT-1 induces the synthesis of the cytokines IL-1 beta, TNF-alpha, IL-6, and IL-8 in nonstimulated monocytes by a LPS-independent cell activation. The increase in the production of cytokines was parallelled by an increase in mRNA, as was demonstrated for IL-6 by reverse transcription- polymerase chain reaction. These data suggest that inflammatory mediators locally produced by VT-1-stimulated monocytes may contribute to the pathogenic mechanism of the HUS.