In murine cutaneous leishmaniasis caused by Leishmania major (Lm), resistance often associates with the outgrowth of Lm-specific Th1 cells. Parasites are eliminated by Th1-mediated activation of infected macrophages (M phi) which destroy Lm by producing toxic nitrogen and oxygen radicals. The cytokine IFN-alpha activates microbicidal functions of M phis and facilitates outgrowth of Th1 cells. Therefore, we compared the course of infection with Lm in resistant C57BL/6 mice, bearing the If-1h high expression allele for IFN-alpha/beta, with the congenic B6.C-H-28c mouse, bearing the If-1I low expression allele from the Lm-susceptible BALB/c strain. We observed that B6.C-H-28c animals developed up to 70% larger footpad lesions and harbored up to 1000-fold more parasites than C57BL/6 mice. Furthermore, peak Lm-specific IFN-gamma production in the B6.C-H-28c animals was lower and delayed by approximately 2 weeks, whereas IL-4 production was higher and persisted approximately 2 weeks longer. Since these results suggested that IFN-alpha/beta plays a protective role in mice infected with Lm, we determined whether infusing B6.C-H-28c mice with IFN-alpha would influence the course of infection with Lm. Unfortunately, the mice developed severe peritoneal hemorrhaging in response to injection with IFN-alpha. Therefore, we examined the ability of IFN-alpha to activate M phis to destroy Lm in vitro. We observed that rIFN-alpha could synergize with subactivating doses of LPS to activate both C57BL/6 and BALB/c peritoneal M phis to produce NO and to kill intracellular Lm. Taken as a whole, these results suggest that type I interferons may play a protective role in cutaneous leishmaniasis.