MHC class II-encoded molecules HLA-DR, -DP and -DQ play a pivotal role in the human immune response. Their constitutive expression is restricted to a number of immunocompetent cells referred to as antigen-presenting cells. However, gamma-interferon (gamma-IFN) has been shown to induce MHC class II molecule expression in several epithelia. Using flow cytometric analysis, we show here that normal and SV40-transformed human podocytes in culture constitutively expressed gamma-IFN receptors. We also show that MHC class I molecules are constitutively expressed in these cells and that HLA-DR, -DP and -DQ expression, which is not found in unstimulated cells, can be induced by gamma-IFN stimulation. This induction was a time-dependent event, a lag phase of 24-48 h being necessary for MHC class II molecules to become detectable at the cell surface by flow cytometric analysis. Induction of MHC class II molecules in human podocytes also showed a concentration dependence, a plateau being reached at a concentration of 500 IU of gamma-IFN/ml of culture medium. This effect was blunted by coincubation of the cells with an antihuman gamma-IFN receptor monoclonal antibody. HLA-DR expression was associated with specific mRNA accumulation, as detected by Northern blot analysis. By indirect immunofluorescence, the intercellular adhesion molecule 1 was also induced by gamma-IFN stimulation. Induction of DR, DP and DQ in human podocytes may be involved in the pathogenesis of immune glomerulonephritis in man.