In rheumatoid arthritis there is a chronic immune and inflammatory reaction which can lead to the destruction of the diseased joint. Cytokine gene expression was studied in synovial cells using cDNA probes specific for human interleukin 1 (IL-1), -alpha and IL-1 beta, tumour necrosis factor (TNF), -alpha and TNF beta (lymphotoxin); protein molecules which induce cartilage degradation and bone resorption. In all cases studied, IL-1 mRNA was present in freshly isolated synovial cells from fluid or membrane. Compared to levels of IL-1 mRNA found in optimally activated normal blood mononuclear cells, the levels of IL-1 alpha mRNA were high in seven of the nine patients studied, whereas IL-1 beta mRNA, the dominant form in blood, was relatively lower. TNF alpha and TNF beta mRNA were also detected. Rheumatoid synovial cells, cultured without any stimulus, continued to express high levels of IL-1 alpha mRNA for up to 5 days, compared to the 24 h response of activated blood cells; IL-1 beta mRNA in culture was also prolonged. Cultures of rheumatoid joint cells produced IL-1 bioactivity, with roughly equal amounts of IL-1 alpha and beta, as assessed using neutralizing antibodies. TNF bioactivity was also detected which may be of importance as TNF induces the production of IL-1. The finding of these mediators produced in large amounts in active rheumatoid synovial cells suggests that mutually stimulatory cell interactions, mediated by these molecules, may be important in the chronic inflammation and tissue destruction in rheumatoid arthritis.