Tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) is a key regulator of adipose tissue mass, but mechanisms underlying this effect have not been fully elucidated. We found that exposure to TNF-alpha caused a significant decrease in the number of adipocytes, but not preadipocytes. Subsequent experiments revealed that TNF-alpha selectively deleted adipocytes through induction of apoptosis. Following exposure to TNF-alpha, rapid activation of nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-kappaB) was observed only in preadipocytes, but not in adipocytes. Inhibition of NF-kappaB rendered preadipocytes susceptible to TNF-alpha-induced apoptosis, suggesting that different activity of NF-kappaB is the determinant for the distinct apoptotic responses. During adipocyte differentiation, expression and activity of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-gamma (PPARgamma) were upregulated. Treatment of preadipocytes with a PPARgamma agonist attenuated NF-kappaB activation and rendered the cells vulnerable to TNF-alpha-induced apoptosis. Conversely, treatment of adipocytes with a PPARgamma antagonist enhanced NF-kappaB activation and conferred resistance to TNF-alpha-induced apoptosis, suggesting involvement of PPARgamma in the suppression of NF-kappaB in adipocytes. We also found that, following differentiation, expression and activity of CCAAT/enhancer binding protein (C/EBP), especially C/EBPalpha and C/EBPbeta, were upregulated in adipocytes. Overexpression of individual C/EBPs significantly inhibited activation of NF-kappaB in preadipocytes. Furthermore, transfection with siRNA for C/EBPalpha or C/EBPbeta enhanced activity of NF-kappaB in adipocytes, suggesting that C/EBP is also involved in the repression of NF-kappaB in adipocytes. These results suggested novel mechanisms by which TNF-alpha selectively deletes adipocytes in the adipose tissue. The C/EBP- and PPARgamma-mediated suppression of NF-kappaB may contribute to TNF-alpha-related loss of adipose tissue mass under certain pathological situations, such as cachexia.