Monocyte cell surface molecules play an important role in the regulation of monocyte function. To investigate the molecular basis of monocyte-mediated cytotoxicity, we tested the ability of a variety of mediators to stimulate human monocyte-mediated cytotoxicity. Phorbol myristic acetate (PMA) stimulated significant monocyte-mediated killing of tumor cells in an 18-hr indium-111 release assay. Five other cytoactive substances did not induce monocyte-mediated cytotoxicity. The acquisition of monocyte cytotoxicity was associated with nearly a twofold increase in surface expression of three CD18-bearing cell surface molecules (CD11a, CD11b, CD11c). The direct involvement of the CD18-bearing molecules in monocyte-mediated cytotoxicity was investigated using monoclonal antibody (MAb) inhibition. MAb recognizing the CD18 subunit significantly inhibited monocyte-mediated killing. The inhibition by anti-CD18 MAb could not be attributed to LFA-1 (CD11a) alone, suggesting that CR3 (CD11b) and p150, 95 (CD11c) may also participate in monocyte-mediated cytotoxicity. In contrast, seven of eight other cell surface structures were not affected by PMA treatment, and MAb to all eight cell surface structures did not inhibit killing. These findings suggest that CD18-bearing molecules are upregulated with monocyte activation and may play a functional role in monocyte-mediated killing.