Stimulation of isolated rat Kupffer cells by viable Leptospira interrogans, Treponema pallidum and Borrelia garinii elicited cellular responses resulting in the release of different tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) levels, depending on the spirochetes. L. interrogans induced TNF-alpha levels higher than those achieved with B. garinii and T. pallidum (in this order), but lower than the levels achieved with lipopolysaccharide (LPS). In contrast to L. interrogans, pretreatment of borreliae and treponemes with polymyxin B did not substantially diminish the ability of B. garinii and T. pallidum to stimulate Kupffer cells. Purified T. pallidum lipoproteins TpN47, TmpA, TpN15-TpN17, and B. garinii OspA induced TNF-alpha responses comparable to that achieved by LPS. This response was almost insensitive to the action of polymyxin B.