In the normal resolution of an acute inflammatory response apoptosis of neutrophils is essential to maintain immune homeostasis and limit inappropriate host tissue damage by decreasing neutrophil tissue load, function, and release of phlogistic reactive oxygen species and proteases. The systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS), a massive pro-inflammatory immune state, is associated with delayed neutrophil apoptosis, however, the systemic circulating factors and intracellular signal transduction pathways important in regulating neutrophil apoptosis in SIRS are poorly described. Neutrophils isolated from patients with SIRS on admission to the intensive care unit showed significantly (p<.01) delayed spontaneous neutrophil apoptosis compared with healthy neutrophils as quantified using annexin V-FITC and terminal deoxyuridine triphosphate (dUTD) nick end labeling (TUNEL) flow cytometry methods. Plasma from SIRS patients markedly (41.5+/-7.2%, p<.01) inhibited apoptosis of healthy neutrophils compared with controls (69.7+/-4.8%) indicating the presence of soluble circulating factors that can modify the expression of neutrophil apoptosis. Various pro-inflammatory (IL-6, granulocyte macrophage colony-simulating factor, interleukin (IL)-1beta, tumor necrosis factor-alpha) mediators, known to modulate neutrophil apoptosis in vitro, were elevated in the plasma of our cohort of SIRS patients compared with controls. However, the anti-apoptotic effect of SIRS plasma was specifically attenuated (75.5%, p<.01) by neutralizing SIRS plasma of granulocyte macrophage-colony-stimulating factor, but not IL-6, IL-1beta, tumor necrosis factor-alpha. Although the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10 was elevated in SIRS plasma (median level 7.2 pg/mL), further boosting SIRS plasma with recombinant human IL-10 (10 ng/mL, levels found in septic shock patients) significantly countered (63.8%, p<.01) the inhibitory effect of SIRS plasma on neutrophil apoptosis. Suppression of neutrophil apoptosis was concomitant with delayed spontaneous elevation of reactive oxygen species, quantified as peroxide production, and reversed by addition of neutralizing antibodies to GM-CSF, and recombinant human IL-10 to SIRS plasma. These results identify circulating GM-CSF as a significant inhibitor of neutrophil apoptosis in patients with SIRS, and that this effect can be countered by boosting SIRS plasma with IL-10. GM-CSF and IL-10 appear to modulate neutrophil apoptosis by altering reactive oxygen species generation in neutrophils.