In this paper, we examined the contribution of the lymphokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) to the growth of four virulent strains of Mycobacterium avium and the nature of the binding moieties on the mycobacteria. First, we showed that human or mouse recombinant interleukin-6 are potent growth factors for four strains of virulent M. avium. This was shown to occur in tissue culture medium, which does not support maximal growth of M. avium. Bioactive IL-6 was required, inasmuch as heat-activating IL-6 or adding an antibody against IL-6 blocked this growth-enhancing ability. The rapid uptake of IL-6 by M. avium was indicated by the fact that the incubation of IL-6 with the four M. avium strains led to a rapid removal of the bioactivity from the culture medium and a rapid removal of radiolabeled IL-6. Scatchard analysis of receptor interaction showed that the M. avium strains had a single receptor species with a Kd of 50 nM and the number of receptor sites was approximately 15,000 bacterium. Blocking experiments showed that the binding of radiolabeled IL-6 was fully displaceable with cold IL-6, but not with other lymphokines. These data suggest that IL-6 may play an important role in the pathogenesis of M. avium infections, notably by promoting growth of M. avium, and that some virulent M. avium strains bind IL-6 in a specific manner.