Human hepatocytes in primary culture were used as a model system to investigate the mechanism(s) involved in the induction of the acute-phase response in human liver. Hepatocytes were incubated with increasing amounts of recombinant human interleukin-1 beta, recombinant interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha. Synthesis of C-reactive protein was studied at the mRNA and protein levels. Only recombinant interleukin-6 was capable of inducing C-reactive protein-mRNA and C-reactive protein-protein synthesis. Also, fibrinogen and alpha-1-antitrypsin synthesis measured by immunoprecipitation with specific antisera increased in a dose-dependent, time-dependent manner, whereas albumin synthesis decreased to about 50% of controls. Maximal effects were observed at 100 to 300 units of recombinant interleukin-6/ml culture medium after 20 hr of incubation. Although the synthetic glucocorticoid dexamethasone slightly modulated the effect of recombinant interleukin-6, it was not an absolute requirement for the induction of acute-phase protein synthesis in human hepatocytes. In pulse-chase experiments it was shown that the time course of the disappearance of the acute-phase proteins from the cells and their appearance in the medium is not influenced by recombinant interleukin-6. This finding suggests that recombinant interleukin-6 exerts its regulatory effect on acute-phase protein synthesis at the pretranslational level.