Soybean agglutinin (SBA) lectin, a protein present in raw soybean meals, can bind to and be extensively endocytosed by intestinal epithelial cells, being nutritionally toxic for most animals. In the present study we show that SBA (5-200 micrograms/cavity) injected into different cavities of rats induced a typical inflammatory response characterized by dose-dependent exudation and neutrophil migration 4 h after injection. This effect was blocked by pretreatment with glucocorticoid (0.5 mg/kg) or by co-injection of N-acetyl-galactosamine (100 x [M] lectin), but not of other sugars (100 x [M] lectin), suggesting an inflammatory response related to the lectin activity. Neutrophil accumulation was not dependent on a direct effect of SBA on the macrophage population since the effect was not altered when the number of peritoneal cells was increased or decreased in vivo. On the other hand, SBA showed chemotactic activity for human neutrophils in vitro. A slight increase in mononuclear cells was observed 48 h after i.p. injection of SBA. Phenotypic analysis of these cells showed an increase in the CD4+/CD8- lymphocyte population that returned to control levels after 15 days, suggesting the development of an immune response. SBA-stimulated macrophages presented an increase in the expression of CD11/CD18 surface molecules and showed some characteristics of activated cells. After intravenous administration, SBA increased the number of circulating neutrophils and inhibited in a dose-dependent manner the neutrophil migration induced by i.p. injection of carrageenan into peritoneal cavities. The co-injection of N-acetyl-galactosamine or mannose, but not glucose or fucose, inhibited these effects. The data indicate that soybean lectin is able to induce a local inflammatory reaction but has an anti-inflammatory effect when present in circulating blood.