Vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP), composed of 28 amino acids, is a multifunctional neurotransmitter. We have demonstrated here that its action on human transformed colonic epithelial (HT-29) cells is mediated through the induction of interferon (IFN) synthesis. We have found that these cells have a functional receptor for IFN alpha 2; binding was specific to either IFN alpha 2 or IFN beta but not to IFN gamma. VIP induced the 2'5'oligoadenylate synthetase (2'5'A synthetase) and the antiviral state with the same efficiency as poly (I).poly (C). The induction of 2'5'A synthetase activity required cellular RNA and protein synthesis, and the maximum induction occurred with 10(-7) M VIP at 24 h. VIP, like some IFN inducers, induced the synthesis of the 70 hsp which, however, preceded the expression of 2'5'A synthetase. VIP treatment caused the induction and secretion of IFN, having a titer value of 32 international units/ml. This IFN has been identified as type beta/alpha, because both 2'5'A synthetase and the antiviral activities were abolished by anti-human IFN beta/alpha antibodies, but not by anti-IFN gamma antibodies. Thus the pathway of VIP action on HT-29 cells may be outlined as 1) binding of VIP, 2) synthesis of 70 hsp, 3) induction of IFN synthesis and its secretion, 4) binding of the secreted IFN to cell surface receptors and 5) turning on the induction of 2'5'A synthetase and antiviral activities.