Septic shock is mediated in part by nitric oxide (NO) and tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNFalpha). NO is synthesized primarily from extracellular arginine. We tested the ability of an arginine-degrading enzyme to inhibit NO production in mice and to protect mice from the hypotension and lethality that occur after the administration of TNFalpha or endotoxin. Treatment of BALB/c mice with arginine deiminase (ADI) formulated with succinimidyl succinimide polyethylene glycol of M(r) 20000 (ADI-SS PEG(20000)) eliminated all measurable plasma arginine (from normal levels of approximately 155 microM arginine to 2 microM). In addition, ADI-SS PEG(20000) also inhibited the production of NO, as quantified by plasma nitrate+nitrite. Treatment of mice with TNFalpha or endotoxin resulted in a dose-dependent increase in NO production and lethality. Pretreatment of mice with ADI-SS PEG(20000) resulted in increased resistance to the lethal effects of TNFalpha and endotoxin. These observations are consistent with NO production resulting, to some extent, from the metabolism of extracellular arginine. The toxic effects of TNFalpha and endotoxin may be partially inhibited by enzymic degradation of plasma arginine by ADI-SS PEG(20000). Interestingly, pretreatment with ADI-SS PEG(20000) did not inhibit the anti-tumour activity of TNFalpha in vitro or in vivo. This treatment may allow greater amounts of TNFalpha, as well as other cytokines, to be administered while abrogating side effects such as hypotension and death.