Tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha mRNA contains an AU-rich element (ARE) in its 3' untranslated region (3'UTR), which determines its half-life and translational efficiency. In unstimulated macrophages, TNF-alpha mRNA is repressed translationally, and becomes efficiently translated upon cell activation. Gel retardation experiments and screening of a macrophage cDNA expression library with the TNF-alpha ARE allowed the identification of TIA-1-related protein (TIAR), T-cell intracellular antigen-1 (TIA-1) and tristetraprolin (TTP) as TNF-alpha ARE-binding proteins. Whereas TIAR and TIA-1 bind the TNF-alpha ARE independently of the activation state of macrophages, the TTP-ARE complex is detectable upon stimulation with lipopolysaccharide (LPS). Moreover, treatment of LPS-induced macrophage extracts with phosphatase significantly abrogates TTP binding to the TNF-alpha ARE, indicating that TTP phosphorylation is required for ARE binding. Carballo, Lai and Blackshear [(1998) Science 281, 1001-1005] showed that TTP was a TNF-alpha mRNA destabilizer. In contrast, TIA-1, and most probably TIAR, acts as a TNF-alpha mRNA translational silencer. A two-hybrid screening with TIAR and TIA-1 revealed the capacity of these proteins to interact with other RNA-binding proteins. Interestingly, TIAR and TIA-1 are not engaged in the same interaction, indicating for the first time that TIAR and TIA-1 can be functionally distinct. These findings also suggest that ARE-binding proteins interact with RNA as multimeric complexes, which might define their function and their sequence specificity.