Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) has been implicated in several infectious and inflammatory lung diseases. Two closely related variants, TNFalpha and TNFbeta, elicit various cellular responses via two distinct TNF receptors, the 55-kDa TNF-R1 and the 75-kDa TNF-R2. Recently, a TNFalpha-converting enzyme (TACE) was described, which cleaves and releases the membrane-bound TNFalpha. In the present study in normal rat and human lung tissue, the constitutive expression of TNFalpha/beta, TACE and TNF-R1/R2 was investigated by immunohistochemical techniques. In addition, TNFalpha and TNFbeta mRNA were localized by in situ hybridization. Both TNFalpha and TNFbeta were detected in various lung cell types. Expression of TNFalpha was particularly prominent in bronchial epithelial cells and vascular smooth muscle cells, next to alveolar macrophages. Both in situ hybridization for TNFalpha message and TACE immunostaining matched this expression profile. TNFbeta-so far only known to be produced by lymphocytes-was demonstrated in alveolar macrophages, bronchial epithelial cells, vascular smooth muscle cells and endothelial cells at the protein and the message level. Both TNF receptors were detected, with TNF-R1 being prominent on bronchial epithelial cells and endothelial cells, and TNF-R2 being expressed by nearly all cell types. Following LPS stimulation in isolated rat lungs TNFalpha/beta signal intensity was largely reduced due to liberation of stored TNFalpha/beta, while TACE immunoreactivity remained unchanged or was enhanced, demonstrating increased TNF generation. We conclude that both TNFalpha and TNFbeta are constitutively expressed by several non-leukocytic cell types in the human and rat lung. In concert with the expression of TACE and the TNF receptors R1 and R2, this finding suggests in addition to the known role of the TNF system in inflammation physiological functions of the TNF system in different compartments of the adult lung, with the vasculature and the bronchial tissue being of particular interest in addition to the leukocyte/macrophage populations.