African trypanosome infections result in lymphocyte unresponsiveness and anemia in the mammalian host. In murine infections, these effects are mediated by suppressor macrophages releasing nitric oxide (NO). We investigated the mechanism of activation of macrophages to produce NO during trypanosomiasis in vitro. A soluble component of trypanosome lysates induced NO synthesis in peritoneal macrophage cultures only when the macrophages were co-stimulated with interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma). The macrophage-activating factor was also released in a soluble form by live bloodstream-form trypanosomes, but not procyclic trypanosomes. When splenocyte cultures were exposed to IFN-gamma and trypanosomes, an NO-dependent suppression of T cell proliferation occurred. This is similar to the suppression observed in the spleens of trypanosome-infected mice, suggesting that a combination of trypanosome-released macrophage-activating factors and IFN-gamma are a trigger of immune dysfunction in trypanosomiasis.