Inbred strains of mice differ considerably in their innate resistance to leishmanial infection. BALB/c mice are highly susceptible to cutaneous leishmaniasis caused by Leishmania major, whereas CBA mice are resistant. We now show that this resistance correlates with the ability of macrophages to synthesize nitric oxide (NO) following activation with interferon-gamma or tumor necrosis factor alpha. Furthermore, the larger amounts of NO generated by resistant macrophages are related to higher levels of NO synthase activity, a difference which is not attributable to the number or the affinity of the receptors for interferon-gamma on these cells. The level of NO synthesis by activated macrophages was also correlated to the resistance in a number of other inbred mouse strains tested; macrophages from the resistant B10.S, C57BL and C3H mice produced significantly higher levels of NO than the macrophages from the susceptible BALB.b and DBA/2 mice.