Human neonatal lymphocytes produced little macrophage activation factor in response to mitogens. This correlated with decreased production of interferon-gamma (IFN gamma): adult lymphokines contained 894.2 +/- 177.1 U/ml, whereas neonatal cord and peripheral lymphokines contained 66.9 +/- 17.0 and 116.7 +/- 29.6 U/ml by bioassay. Results by radioimmunoassay (RIA) for IFN gamma were similar. In contrast, the interleukin 2 content of cord lymphokines was greater (P less than 0.01) and that of neonatal peripheral blood lymphokines similar to that of adults. Interleukin 1 production and interleukin 2 receptor expression and affinity were similar for adult and neonatal cells. Interleukins 1 and 2 in amounts comparable to those in adult lymphokines did not increase production of macrophage activation factor or IFN gamma by neonatal cells. Neonatal cells did not contain intracellular IFN or degrade exogenous IFN. Excess suppressor activity was not found in neonatal cultures. Addition of IFN alpha, 10,000-50,000 U/ml of interleukin 2 or phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) to cord mononuclear cells or of adult monocytes or PMA to cord T cells increased IFN gamma production compared to cells stimulated with concanavalin A (ConA) alone. Nevertheless, under optimal conditions (T cells + PMA + Con A), adult cells produced much more IFN gamma (1,360 +/- 261 U/ml by RIA) than cord cells (122 +/- 37 U/ml). Staphylococcal enterotoxin A (SEA) stimulated cord cell IFN gamma production at low cell densities; nevertheless, adult cells produced more IFN in response to SEA 1,341 +/- 350 U/ml) than cord cells (350 +/- 33 U/ml). Decreased production of IFN gamma by neonatal cells appears to be due both to differences in their intrinsic capacity to produce IFN gamma and to differences in regulatory mechanisms.