Zinc plays an important role in the maintenance of immune functions. The immunological mechanisms triggered by zinc, however, are still poorly understood. In our experiments Zn2+ ions, added as ZnSO4, stimulated PBMC to produce IFN-gamma, IL-1 beta, IL-6, TNF-alpha, and sIL-2R in a concentration-dependent manner. CuSO4 and CaCl2 as cation and anion controls had no effect. The optimal concentration of zinc was 0.5 mM for monokine induction and 0.25 mM for induction of IFN-gamma and sIL-2R. The highest IL-1 beta and IL-6 levels were found on day 2 and maximum TNF-alpha after 16 h. IFN-gamma and sIL-2R production were optimum after 6 and 7 days, respectively. Monokines could be induced in autologous serum as well as in fetal calf serum and serum-free medium. Enriched monocytes and the human monocyte cell line Mono Mac 6 also released IL-1 beta after zinc challenge. Anti-IL-6 reduced IFN-gamma secretion whereas anti-IL-1 beta inhibited it. These data suggest that zinc acts primarily on monocytes by inducing monokine secretion and that T-cell activation represents a secondary effect in the cytokine cascade.