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Expression of the macrophage mannose receptor is inhibited by interferon gamma (IFN-gamma), a T helper type 1 (Th-1)-derived lymphokine. Interleukin 4 (IL-4), a Th-2 lymphocyte product, upregulates major histocompatibility class II antigen expression but inhibits inflammatory cytokine production by macrophages. We have studied the effect of IL-4 on expression of the macrophage mannose receptor (MMR) by elicited peritoneal macrophages. We found that recombinant murine IL-4 enhances MMR surface expression (10-fold) and activity (15-fold), as measured by the respective binding and degradation of 125I-mannose-bovine serum albumin. Polymerase chain reaction analysis of cDNAs from purified primary macrophage populations revealed that MMR, but not lysozyme or tumor necrosis factor alpha, mRNA levels were markedly increased by IL-4. The above effects were associated with morphologic changes. These data establish IL-4 as a potent and selective enhancer of murine MMR activity in vitro. IL-4 induces inflammatory macrophages to adopt an alternative activation phenotype, distinct from that induced by IFN-gamma, characterized by a high capacity for endocytic clearance of mannosylated ligands, enhanced (albeit restricted) MHC class II antigen expression, and reduced proinflammatory cytokine secretion.