We have previously reported that the cytokines IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha each upregulate the expression of class I MHC proteins and, in combination, induce the expression of class II MHC proteins on pancreatic islet cells. IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha are therefore implicated in the immunologic destruction of beta-cells in insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. The objective of the present study was to define the effects of IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha on the function and viability of murine pancreatic islet beta-cells in vitro. Exposure of islets for 3 days to 200 U/ml of either IFN-gamma or TNF-alpha did not affect glucose-stimulated insulin release, but at higher concentrations (2000 U/ml) of either cytokine there was significant inhibition of glucose-stimulated insulin release. In combination, IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha each at 200 U/ml caused significant inhibition of glucose-stimulated insulin release; at 2000 U/ml glucose-stimulated insulin release was abolished. In time-course experiments, glucose-stimulated insulin release from islets exposed to IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha each at 1000 U/ml was significantly increased at 4-h (twofold increase compared with control islets), decreased back to control levels at 18 h, significantly inhibited by 24 h (threefold decrease compared with control islets), and completely abolished by 48 h. The progressive impairment of beta-cell function mediated by IFN-gamma plus TNF-alpha was associated with morphologic derangement of the islets that were almost totally disintegrated by day 6 of exposure to the cytokines. At day 6, insulin content of the islets was significantly reduced by exposure to TNF-alpha but not IFN-gamma. The combination of IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha resulted in a further dose-dependent depletion in insulin content compared with TNF-alpha alone. The synergistic functional and cytotoxic effects of IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha are consistent with a direct role for these cytokines in the destruction of beta-cells in insulin-dependent diabetes.