A mouse model of pulmonary tuberculosis induced by the intratracheal instillation of live and virulent mycobacteria strain H37-Rv was used to examine the relationship of the histopathological findings with the local kinetics production and cellular distribution of tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), interleukin-1 alpha (IL-1 alpha) and transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta). The histopathological and immunological studies showed two phases of the disease: acute or early and chronic or advanced. The acute phase was characterized by inflammatory infiltrate in the alveolar-capillary interstitium, blood vessels and bronchial wall with formation of granulomas. During this acute phase, which lasted from 1 to 28 days, high percentages of TNF-alpha and IL-1 alpha immunostained activated macrophages were observed principally in the interstium-intralveolar inflammatory infiltrate and in granulomas. Electron microscopy studies of these cells, showed extensive rough endoplasmic reticulum, numerous lysosomes and occasional mycobacteria. Double labelling with colloid gold showed that TNF-alpha and IL-1 alpha were present in the same cells, but were confined to separate vacuoles near the Golgi area, and mixed in larger vacuoles near to cell membrane. The concentration of TNF-alpha and IL-1 alpha as well as their respective mRNAs were elevated in the early phase, particularly at day 3 when the bacillary count decreased. A second peak was seen at days 14 and 21-28 when granulomas appeared and evolved to full maturation. In contrast, TGF-beta production and numbers of immunoreactive cells were low in comparison with the advanced phase of the disease. The chronic phase was characterized by histopathological changes indicative of more severity (i.e. pneumonia, focal necrosis and extensive interstitial fibrosis) with a decrease in the TNF-alpha and IL-1 alpha production that coincided with the highest level of TGF-beta. The bacillary counts were highest as the macrophages became large, vacuolated foamy cells, and containing numerous bacilli with immunoreactivity to mycobacterial lipids and lipoarabinomannan (LAM). These macrophages displayed poor and scarce TNF-alpha and IL-1 alpha immunostaining but still strong immunoreactivity to TGF-beta. These cytokine production kinetics and the spatial relationship between immunostained cells and lung lesions corroborate the important role of TNF-alpha and IL-1 alpha in the constitution of granulomas and immune protection during the early phase of the infection, and also suggest an important if not primary role for TGF-beta in the immunopathogenesis of the advanced forms of pulmonary tuberculosis.