The effect of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF alpha) and interferon-gamma (IFN gamma) on collagen metabolism by human diploid fibroblasts in confluent monolayer culture was examined. Recombinant TNF alpha reduced collagen mRNA levels 2-fold and stimulated collagenase mRNA levels 5-fold, while recombinant IFN gamma affected only collagen mRNA levels. The combination of TNF alpha (10 ng/ml) and IFN gamma (100 ng/ml) resulted in a much stronger (about 30-fold) reduction of collagen mRNA levels indicating that the two cytokines act synergistically. In contrast no such synergism was observed with respect to collagenase mRNA levels. The effect of TNF alpha and IFN gamma on collagen metabolism reported here indicates a complex interaction of different cytokines in the control of tissue remodeling that occurs during inflammation, repair, or atrophy.