Monocytes having phagocytosed mycobacteria are known to present the bacterial 65-kD heat shock protein (hsp) on their cell surface to alpha beta and gamma delta T lymphocytes. Cytotoxic CD4+ cells may then lyse monocytes expressing mycobacterial 65-kD hsp. However, it is not known whether 65-kD hsp directly stimulates monocyte functions other than antigen presentation. This study has demonstrated that following extraction of bacterial lipopolysaccharide, purified recombinant mycobacterial 65-kD hsp may directly activate THP-1 cells, a human monocytic line, to accumulate mRNA for and secrete tumour necrosis factor (TNF), a cytokine important in granuloma formation, the characteristic host immune response to mycobacterial infection. TNF gene expression and secretion following stimulation by hsp was dose-dependent and abolished by heat-induced proteolysis. Subsequently, THP-1 cells secreted IL-6 and IL-8, cytokines involved in recruitment and differentiation of T lymphocytes. The data indicate that secretion of proinflammatory cytokines from monocytes activated by mycobacterial 65-kD hsp may be important in the host immune response and in the development of antigen-specific T cell-mediated immunity.