Pro-inflammatory cytokines such as interleukin (IL)-1, IL-6, IL-8 and tumour necrosis factor (TNF) are believed to be the major pathological mediators of inflammatory diseases ranging from arthritis to the periodontal diseases. The stimuli inducing proinflammatory cytokine induction in the former disease is unclear but in the periodontal diseases it is obvious that the stimulus is the accumulation of bacteria in the subgingival region. As these bacteria do not invade the lesional tissues in large numbers, it is believed that their soluble components or products interact with host tissues to induce cytokine gene transcription. The paradigm is that lipopolysaccharide is the key bacterial component inducing pro-inflammatory cytokine gene expression. However, over the past decade a growing number of reports on non-oral bacteria have established that many other bacterial components, as well as secretory products, have the capacity to induce cytokine synthesis. Some of these, such as the protein pneumolysin from Streptococcus pneumoniae, are incredibly potent (in this case inducing cytokine synthesis at femtomolar concentrations). This review surveys the range of bacterial components and products which have been shown to stimulate cytokine synthesis with particular emphasis on the hypothesis that these components play a role in the pathology of the periodontal diseases.