Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) is a polypeptide hormone produced by activated macrophages detectable in the circulation of experimental animals given endotoxin. Recent evidence strongly suggests that many of the deleterious effects of endotoxin in experimental animals are mediated by TNF. Because endotoxemia in experimental animals and humans is associated with glomerular damage the present investigation was designed to establish whether TNF directly induces glomerular functional and structural changes. Twenty-three rabbits were given human recombinant TNF at the doses of 0.08, 0.8, and 8.0 micrograms/kg/h as a continuous 5-hour intravenous infusion. Animals were killed at the end of the infusion. All rabbits given 0.8 and 8.0 micrograms/kg/h TNF developed anemia (Ht value decrease at 5 hours: 0.8 microgram/kg/h, 15%; 8.0 micrograms/kg/h, 16%); leukopenia (leukocyte count decrease at 5 hours: 0.8 micrograms/kg/h, 47%; 8.0 micrograms/kg/h, 59%); thrombocytopenia (platelet count decrease at 5 hours; 0.8 micrograms/kg/h, 45%; 8.0 micrograms/kg/h, 57%). Rabbits given 8.0 micrograms/kg/h also had renal failure (serum creatinine from 1.02 +/- 0.15 to 1.64 +/- 0.34 mg/dl). By light microscopy only occasional polymorphonuclear leukocytes in the glomerular capillaries were detectable in rabbits infused with 0.08 micrograms/kg/h TNF, whereas with 0.8 micrograms/kg/h TNF the presence of inflammatory cells in the glomerular capillaries was the prominent finding. With 8.0 micrograms/kg/h TNF beside leukocyte accumulation, fibrin was detected in the glomerular capillary lumens of two of eight animals. Electron microscopy found dose-dependent glomerular endothelial cell damage in animals given TNF with fibrinlike material in the capillary lumens. Glomerular changes induced by TNF were remarkably similar to those previously found in animals given endotoxin. Thus, TNF is likely to be the mediator of endotoxin-induced glomerular damage and can be regarded as a new mediator of macrophage-dependent damage in glomerulonephritis.