This study reports on the potent cytocidal and interleukin-1 releasing properties of Escherichia coli hemolysin (ECH) on human monocytes. Nanomolar concentrations of purified ECH (250-2,000 ng/ml) caused rapid and irreversible depletion of cellular ATP to levels below 20% of controls within 60 min. Subcytocidal doses (10-200 ng/ml) of ECH induced rapid release within 60-120 min of large amounts of interleukin 1 beta (IL-1 beta) from cultured monocytes. IL-1 beta release occurred in the presence of actinomycin D and cycloheximide, and was thus probably due to processing and export of intracellular IL-1 beta precursor. Incubation of toxin-producing E. coli at ratios of only 0.3-3 colony-forming units per monocyte evoked approximately 50% depletion of total cellular ATP within 90 min. Toxin producers also stimulated synthesis and release of large amounts of interleukin 1, but not of tumor necrosis factor within the same time span. In contrast, non-toxin producers caused neither cell death nor rapid interleukin 1 release. Stimulation of rapid interleukin 1 release coupled with potent cytocidal effects on cells of monocytic origin may represent pathogenetically significant events incurred by bacterial strains that produce ECH and related cytolysins.