A rapid colorimetric microtiter assay has been developed to detect cytotoxic lymphokines produced by human lymphocytes activated with lectins or tumor cells. The viability of lymphotoxin-treated target cells was detected using a tetrazolium dye that is reduced to a blue formazan by living but not dead cells. The amount of dye formed was quantitated using a microplate spectrophotometer (ELISA plate reader) and visual observations confirmed the amount of formazan dye produced was directly proportional to the number of viable target cells. The advantages of using this colorimetric method are that it requires no washing steps or radioisotopes and its precision and rapidity. Optimal conditions were established using the murine L929 and human ESH -5L cell lines as target cells for detecting lymphotoxins produced by human lymphocytes. The data indicate that the L929 cell line was 10-50-fold more sensitive than the ESH -5L line to the lytic activity of cytotoxins produced by human phytohemagglutinin-P-activated T lymphocytes, or the cytotoxins produced by peripheral blood lymphocytes stimulated with various tumor cell lines. This assay system was also useful in detecting antibodies capable of neutralizing lymphotoxin activity and thus should be a suitable method to aid in the molecular characterization of these lymphokines.