Cell-associated and secreted interleukin 1 alpha (IL 1 alpha), IL 1 beta and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), produced by human mononuclear cells (MNC) in vitro in response to lipopolysaccharide, were measured by radioimmunoassay. After 18 h of incubation, total production of IL 1 alpha in medium containing 1% heat-inactivated serum was two-to-three times higher than IL 1 beta. However, in the presence of 1% serum and 5% fresh plasma, IL 1 alpha and IL 1 beta were produced in similar amounts. Independent of the culture conditions, 90% of the IL 1 alpha remained cell associated whereas 80% of IL 1 beta was extracellular. The kinetics of production and release of IL 1 alpha, beta and TNF-alpha were also studied. IL 1 alpha and TNF-alpha reached maximal levels within 6 h of stimulation, whereas IL 1 beta reached maximal levels between 12 and 16 h. IL 1 alpha remained primarily cell associated (80%) for the first 24 h. After 48 h, extracellular IL 1 alpha exceeded cell-associated levels. IL 1 beta was primarily secreted (80%), appearing in the extracellular fluid within 6 h. TNF-alpha appeared in the extracellular fluid within 1 h of incubation, with less than 10% cell associated at any time during the 48 h of incubation. Although the three cytokines share many biological activities, this study provides evidence that MNC IL 1 alpha is predominantly a cell-associated cytokine acting on a cell-cell basis, whereas IL 1 beta and TNF-alpha are secreted as paracrine mediators.