Besides their cytotoxic effects, Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and Lymphotoxin (LT) were shown to modulate distinct PMN functions. Therefore, in the present study we evaluated the effect of recombinant human TNF and LT on the oxidative metabolism of isolated human PMN. In addition ultrastructural changes upon stimulation were evaluated. For detection of granulocyte activation different assay systems were used: 1) lucigenin-dependent chemiluminescence (CL), 2) superoxide-dismutase (SOD) inhibitable cytochrome C-reduction (superoxide), 3) horseradish peroxidase-mediated oxidation of phenol red (hydrogen peroxide), 4) release of myeloperoxidase, 5) ultrastructural detection of hydrogen peroxide-production, 6) scanning and transmission electron microscopy (SEM and TEM). TNF at concentrations as low as 10(-3) U/ml induced a distinct CL response, whereas LT appeared to be less active. PMN preincubated with TNF or LT for 150 min were completely deactivated to renewed stimulation with TNF, LT, and with GM-CSF, but responded to other triggers of the oxidative burst. Moreover, stimulation with f-met-leu-phe resulted in an enhanced response after preincubation with TNF or LT. The CL response was significantly inhibited by SOD, but not by catalase, D-mannitol, and DMTU, suggesting that mainly .O2- is responsible for the CL signal. The effect on PMN could be completely blocked by antibodies to TNF. Significant release of reactive oxygen species upon stimulation with TNF was also demonstrated by cytochrome C reduction and by detection of H2O2 using functional and ultrastructural assays. Only minimal amounts of peroxidase were released. Activation of PMN could be visualized by SEM and TEM. After addition of TNF at concentrations as low as 10(-1) U/ml PMN adhered to the substratum and were typically polarized within 15 min. Stimulation with LT resulted in comparable results, but based on its biologic activity in the cytotoxicity assay LT, in comparison to TNF, was significantly less active. Based on the data presented LT and, particularly, TNF appear to be potent activators of PMN oxidative metabolism.