Alterations in the morphology and histochemistry of vascular endothelial cells (EC) have been repeatedly observed at sites of chronic inflammation and immune reactions. These changes, which are most prominent in the EC postcapillary venules present in areas with large lymphocytic infiltrates, include the acquisition of a columnar or cuboidal morphology, the development of ribonuclease-sensitive metachromasia, and an increase in intracellular organelles. Thus, EC at sites of inflammation appear to be activated and to demonstrate increased metabolic activity. This study reports that both tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF) and lymphotoxin (LT) can activate cultured human umbilical vein EC, as measured by: 1) increased adhesiveness for lymphocytes, 2) increased cell metabolism, as measured by RNA and protein synthesis, and 3) increased cell volume. Although gamma interferon (IFN-gamma) and interleukin-1 (IL-1) have been shown previously to stimulate EC adhesiveness for lymphocytes, these two cytokines had only marginal effects on EC RNA and protein synthesis, and both caused a decrease in EC volume. These findings suggest that TNF and LT play a role in the type of activation of EC in vivo that leads to the development of tall endothelium and increased lymphocyte emigration.