The human acute phase protein, C-reactive protein (CRP), is capable of specifically binding to and modulating the function of mononuclear phagocytes. To investigate whether CRP can also affect the capacity of these cells to produce inflammatory cytokines, enzyme immunoassays and Western blot techniques were used to quantitate interleukin 1 beta (IL-1 beta), interleukin 6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) produced by freshly-isolated normal human monocytes. CRP induced the rapid release of each cytokine, with significantly elevated levels in culture supernatants at 4 hours and maximal levels of TNF-alpha at 8 hours, and of IL-1 beta and IL-6 at 16 hours of culture. The effects of CRP were dose-dependent; greater than 10-fold increases of each cytokine were observed following culture with greater than or equal to 50 micrograms/ml CRP, concentrations which are often found in the presence of moderate to severe inflammation or tissue injury. The induction of cytokine release by CRP was unaffected by inclusion of 25 micrograms/ml polymyxin-B in culture media, but was completely abrogated by prior boiling of the CRP, a procedure which had no effect on induction of monocyte cytokine release by lipopolysaccharide. The dose-dependent induction of inflammatory cytokines by CRP provides further support for the hypothesis that interaction with mononuclear phagocytes constitutes an important biological role for this acute phase protein.