Yersinia pestis KIM5 was found to be cytotoxic for the IC21 and P388D1 mouse macrophage cell lines, as well as for resident peritoneal macrophages from C57BL/6 mice. Affected cells phagocytosed KIM5 inefficiently, became spherical, detached readily from culture dishes, and retained 51Cr poorly. The cytotoxic effect was dependent on the presence of the 75-kilobase plasmid pCD1. Because this plasmid also encodes the low calcium response (LCR), three Mu d1 insertion mutants previously shown to be LCR- and of reduced virulence in mice were examined for cytotoxicity; all were found to be atoxic. The insertions in these mutants lie within three distinct LCR loci (lcrB, C, and D). Like LCR, cytotoxicity was expressed only at 37 degrees C. Unlike LCR, it was not influenced by Ca2+ concentration, indicating that the V and W antigens are probably not involved. Yersinia pseudotuberculosis was found to have a similar plasmid-dependent cytotoxicity. Thus, biological activity observed as cytotoxicity in vitro may well be a common feature contributing to virulence of the yersiniae.