A new member of the interleukin-1 (IL-1) family has recently been described. Human IL-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1ra) is structurally related to IL-1 alpha and IL-1 beta but binds to IL-1 receptors on various target cells without demonstrable agonist activity. Understanding the mechanisms of regulation of IL-1ra production may clarify the biology of this unique cytokine as well as elucidate its possible role as a natural anti-inflammatory protein. The effects of lipopolysaccharide (LPS) on IL-1 alpha, IL-1 beta and IL-1ra production was studied at a single-cell level by use of cytokine-specific antibodies and indirect immunofluorescence technique. The peak synthesis of IL-1ra and IL-1 alpha/beta occurred in peripheral blood monocytes obtained from healthy blood donors within 4 and 6 h of cell stimulation, respectively. By double-staining procedure all IL-1ra-positive cells were also IL-1 alpha and/or beta positive. Thus, endotoxin induced simultaneous synthesis of the IL-1 gene family in the same cells. Only monocytes contributed to the production of IL-1 alpha, beta and IL-1ra during the 96 h of cell culture. The maximum number of IL-1ra-producing monocytes was 48 +/- 16% as compared to peak production of IL-1 alpha and beta which occurred in 75 +/- 9% and 80 +/- 12% (p < 0.001), respectively, of all peripheral blood monocytes. The incidence of IL-1 alpha- and beta-containing cells was not only significantly higher but also occurred for a longer time period, 72 h as compared to 24 h for IL-1ra localized in the Golgi organelle. However, IL-1ra-containing cells with a diffuse cytoplasmic appearance were also evident (20%-30%) at a later stage, 12 to 72 h after stimulation. Blocking IL-1 surface receptors by addition of exogenous recombinant IL-1 beta before stimulation could not inhibit the diffuse cytosolic localization. This indicates that the "late" staining pattern did not reflect IL-1ra being secreted and internalized after binding to extracellular receptors. Thus, perhaps IL-1ra modulates IL-1 effector mechanisms by receptor interactions both inside and outside the cell.