The normal range for circulating plasma endotoxin concentration was determined in 62 healthy primates (vervet monkeys, Cerecopithecus aethiops) by the chromogenic substrate modification of the Limulus amoebocyte lysate test, and found to have a mean of 0.076 +/- 0.004 ng/ml (range 0.000 to 0.0127). Four anesthetized primates received an LD100 iv infusion of Escherichia coli over one hour. Plasma concentrations of endotoxin (lipopolysaccharide, LPS) and anti-LPS IgG, and viable E. coli colonies in circulating whole blood samples were determined at specified intervals. Plasma antiendotoxin IgG concentration was determined by an enzyme-linked immuno-absorbent assay, and viable bacterial counts were assayed by standard plate count techniques. LPS concentration increased during E. coli infusion to a mean of 1.13 +/- 0.068 ng/ml (p less than .001) with a concomitant decrease in the concentration of anti-LPS IgG to 59 +/- 5% of control values (p less than .005). Viable circulating E. coli colonies increased during the infusion to a maximum of 425 X 10(6) cfu/ml 10 min after the completion of the infusion, but fell precipitously 20 min later to 10.1 X 10(6) cfu/ml. When each animal succumbed, their respective plasma LPS concentrations were still raised, whereas no viable circulating E. coli colonies were present at a dilution of 10(2). Elevated plasma LPS could prove to be a significant circulating pathogen during Gram-negative bacterial shock and supports the possible association between plasma LPS and morbidity, and mortality in septic shock.