Urethan is a commonly used animal anesthetic for nonrecovery laboratory surgery. However, urethan has diverse biological effects that may complicate the interpretation of experimental findings. This study examined the effect of urethan on the response to an intravenous bolus of lipopolysaccharide (LPS; 30 mg/kg) in rats. In instrumented rats, urethan (1.2 gm/kg i.p.) completely prevented the fall in arterial pressure immediately after LPS administration but did not prevent late cardiovascular collapse. In uninstrumented rats, urethan also attenuated indexes of organ injury measured 4 h after LPS administration, including mural bowel hemorrhage, hemoconcentration, hypoglycemia, metabolic acidosis, and lung myeloperoxidase activity, a measure of neutrophil sequestration. The peak increase in tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) 90 min after LPS administration was reduced 88% by urethan (2,060 +/- 316 vs. 16,934 +/- 847 pg/ml; P < 0.001). In uninstrumented animals, urethan at 1.2 gm/kg reduced the 90% mortality rate of a lethal dose of LPS to 0-10% when given up to 24 h before LPS administration but did not reduce mortality when given 2 h after LPS. Urethan neither directly bound LPS by Limulus assay nor inhibited LPS-stimulated TNF-alpha mRNA expression in cultured mouse peritoneal macrophages, but TNF-alpha mRNA expression was suppressed by serum from a urethan-treated rat. Moreover, rauwolscine, which shares alpha 2-adrenoceptor-blocking activity with urethan, also prevented death from a subsequent 90% lethal dose LPS bolus. We conclude that urethan or its metabolites protect against LPS, in part, by reducing TNF-alpha release and speculate that this may be mediated by alpha 2-adrenoceptors. These actions of urethan make it an undesirable anesthetic agent for in vivo studies of sepsis or LPS.