The ability of Mycobacterium tuberculosis H37Rv and H37Ra, M. bovis BCG and M. smegmatis to induce the secretion of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) by cultured murine peritoneal macrophages is inversely related to their virulence. The avirulent species of mycobacteria which were unable to persist in macrophages were capable of inducing significant levels of TNF-alpha compared to that formed in cultures infected with the virulent M. tuberculosis H37Rv. This difference was also associated with an inherent toxicity by live H37Rv for macrophage cultures. Heat-killed H37Rv was non-toxic and induced significant levels of TNF-alpha; in contrast, live and heat-killed suspensions of avirulent mycobacteria had an equivalent ability to trigger TNF-alpha secretion. The TNF-alpha response was dose-dependent, related directly to the percentage of infected cells, and peaked 6-12 h post-infection. An early and vigorous TNF-alpha response appears to be a marker of macrophage resistance, while the downregulation of this response seems associated with macrophage toxicity and unrestricted mycobacterial growth.