The in vitro effects of conjugated dienoic derivatives of linoleic acid (CLA) in combination with beta-carotene on lymphocyte and macrophage function was studied. Porcine blood lymphocytes and murine peritoneal macrophages were incubated with 0 (control), 1.78 x 10(-5), 3.57 x 10(-5) and 7.14 x 10(-5) M CLA and 0 (control), 10(-9), 10(-8) and 10(-7) M beta-carotene. CLA alone stimulated mitogen-induced lymphocyte proliferation, lymphocyte cytotoxic activity and macrophage bactericidal activity. In contrast, CLA inhibited interleukin-2 production by lymphocytes and suppressed the phagocytic activity of macrophages. beta-Carotene alone stimulated the cytotoxicity of lymphocytes and increased superoxide production by peritoneal macrophages. When present together, CLA and beta-carotene interacted in an additive manner to further enhance lymphocyte cytotoxicity and spontaneous lymphocyte proliferation. In addition, beta-carotene was able to negate the inhibitory action of CLA on the phagocytic activity of macrophages. Also, CLA and beta-carotene together seemed to suppress mitogen-induced lymphocyte proliferation. Therefore, CLA and beta-carotene; alone and in concert, act to modulate different aspects of cellular host defense.