To evaluate the role of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) in the initiation of the metabolic response to acute infection, we performed a crossover saline-controlled study in six healthy postabsorptive men, investigating the metabolic effects of a bolus intravenous injection of recombinant human TNF (50 micrograms/m2). TNF induced a transient stress hormone response, associated with an early and sustained rise in plasma glucose concentrations (percentage increase at 2 h 23 +/- 7; P less than 0.05). Glucose turnover, measured 7.5 h postinjection, was 10 +/- 3% higher after TNF administration (P less than 0.05). Plasma free fatty acids (FFA) and glycerol concentrations increased transiently after TNF injection, peaking after 4 h (percentage increase 363 +/- 83 and 67 +/- 14, respectively; both P less than 0.05). FFA turnover, determined 6.5 h postinjection, increased in five subjects to a variable extent (percentage increase 126 +/- 55; P less than 0.05). Finally, resting energy expenditure showed a transient rise after TNF injection (34 +/- 2% at 4 h; P less than 0.05). We conclude that intravenous TNF reproduces many of the metabolic changes observed in septicemia, suggesting that TNF may be an initiating factor in the development of the metabolic response to acute infection.