In contrast to results with bacterial suspensions, phagocytosis of unopsonized bacteria readily occurs when bacteria are adhered to glass or plastic surfaces. However, in contrast to neutrophils, alveolar macrophages produced much less DNA denaturation as measured by acridine orange metachromasia of phagocytized Staphylococcus aureus. We have studied the phagocytosis of unopsonized surface-adherent S. aureus and the subsequent production of reactive oxygen species by peripheral blood neutrophils, monocytes, and alveolar macrophages. Phagocyte-free systems were then used to show the relationship of the reactive oxygen species produced by neutrophils and alveolar macrophages and the denaturation of unopsonized S. aureus DNA with acridine orange. Peripheral blood neutrophils, monocytes, and alveolar macrophages from normal human volunteers were added to vials with adherent S. aureus without opsonin. Bacterial uptake and luminol- and lucigenin-dependent chemiluminescence were measured. Neutrophils developed much greater luminol-dependent chemiluminescence than monocytes or alveolar macrophages. Compared with neutrophils and monocytes, alveolar macrophages developed significantly greater concentrations of superoxide, as measured by lucigenin-dependent chemiluminescence and ferricytochrome c reduction. These findings suggested that products of the myeloperoxidase-hydrogen peroxide-halide pathway were generated when peripheral blood neutrophils were stimulated and that alveolar macrophages primarily produced superoxide. When these reactive oxygen species were generated in phagocyte-free systems containing S. aureus, products of the myeloperoxidase-hydrogen peroxide-halide pathway produced denaturation of S. aureus DNA, whereas superoxide did not. Thus, differences in reactive oxygen species produced during phagocytosis may be related to the different capacities of neutrophils and alveolar macrophages to denature unopsonized adherent S. aureus DNA.