Infection of macrophages by the intracellular protozoan parasite Leishmania involves specific attachment to the host membrane, followed by phagocytosis and intracellular survival and growth. Two parasite molecules have been implicated in the attachment event: Leishmania lipopolysaccharide (L-LPS) and a glycoprotein (gp63). This study was designed to clarify the role of L-LPS in infection and the stage in the process of infection at which it operates. We have recently identified a Leishmania major strain (LRC-L119) which lacks the L-LPS molecule and is not infective for hamsters or mice. This parasite was isolated from a gerbil in Kenya and was identified phenotypically as L. major by isoenzyme and fatty acid analysis. In this study we have confirmed at the genotype level that LRC-L119 is L. major by analyzing and comparing the organization of cloned DNA sequences in the genome of different strains of L. major. Here we show that LRC-L119 promastigotes are phagocytosed rapidly by macrophages in vitro, but in contrast to virulent strains of L. major, they are then killed over a period of 18 hr. In addition, we show that transfer of purified L-LPS from a virulent clone of L. major (V121) into LRC-L119 promastigotes confers on them the ability to survive in macrophages in vitro.