Polar solvents induce terminal differentiation in the human promyelocytic leukemia cell line HL-60. The present studies describe the functional changes that accompany the morphologic progression from promyelocytes to bands and poly-morphonuclear leukocytes (PMN) over 9 d of culture in 1.3 percent dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO). As the HL-60 cells mature, the rate of O(2-) production increase 18-fold, with a progressive shortening of the lag time required for activation. Hexosemonophosphate shunt activity rises concomitantly. Ingestin of paraffin oil droplets opsonized with complement or Ig increases 10-fold over 9 d in DMSO. Latex ingestion per cell by each morphologic type does not change significantly, but total latex ingestion by groups of cells increases with the rise in the proportion of mature cells with greater ingestion capacities. Degranulation, as measured by release of β-glucuronidase, lysozyme, and peroxidase, reaches maximum after 3-6 d in DMSO, then declines. HL-60 cells contain no detectable lactoferrin, suggesting that their secondary granules are absent or defective. However, they kill staphylococci by day 6 in DMSO. Morphologically immature cells (days 1-3 in DMSO) are capable of O(2-) generation, hexosemonophosphate shunt activity, ingestion, degranulation, and bacterial killing. Maximal performance of each function by cells incubated in DMSO for longer periods of time is 50-100 percent that of normal PMN. DMSO- induced differentiation of HL-60 cells is a promising model for myeloid development.