The capacity of human monocytoid cell lines and peripheral blood monocytes to modulate their expression of plasminogen receptors has been assessed. After PMA stimulation, THP-1 or U937 monocytoid cells were separated into adherent and nonadherent populations. Plasminogen bound to adherent cells with similar capacity and affinity as to nonstimulated cells. In contrast, the nonadherent cells bound plasminogen with 5-17-fold higher capacity (without a change in affinity). This increase was selective as urokinase bound with similar affinity and capacity to the adherent and nonadherent populations. Upregulation of plasminogen receptors on the nonadherent monocytoid cells was rapid, detectable within 30 min, and reversible, adhesion of the nonadherent cells resulted in a sixfold decrease in plasminogen binding within 90 min. The increase in plasminogen binding to the nonadherent cells was associated with a marked increase in their capacity to generate plasmin activity from cell-bound plasminogen. PMA stimulation of human peripheral blood monocytes increased their expression of plasminogen receptors by two- to fourfold. This increase was observed in both adherent and nonadherent monocytes. Freshly isolated monocytes maximally bound 5.0 x 10(5) plasminogen molecules per cell, whereas monocytes cultured for 18 h or more maximally bound 1.7 x 10(7) molecules per cell, a 30-fold difference in receptor number. These results indicate that both monocytes and monocytoid cell lines can rapidly and markedly regulate their expression of plasminogen binding sites. As enhanced plasminogen binding is correlated with an increased capacity to generate plasmin, an enzyme with broad substrate recognition, modulation of plasminogen receptors may have profound functional consequences.