Cell surface components of pathogens, such as lipopolysaccharide (LPS), are an important signal for receptor-mediated activation of immune cells. Here we demonstrate that DNA of gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria or certain synthetic oligonucleotides displaying unmethylated CpG-motifs can trigger macrophages in vitro to induce nuclear translocation of nuclear factor-kappa B, accumulate tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha mRNA and release large amounts of TNF-alpha. In vivo these events culminate in acute cytokine-release syndrome which includes systemic but transient accumulation of TNF-alpha. D-Galactosamine (DGalN)-sensitized mice succumb to lethal toxic shock due to macrophage-derived TNF-alpha resulting in fulminant apoptosis of liver cells. LPS and a specific oligonucleotide synergized in vivo as measured by TNF-alpha-release, suggesting that macrophages integrate the respective signals. The ability of macrophages to discriminate and to respond to bacterial DNA with acute release of pro-inflammatory cytokines may point out an important and as yet unappreciated sensing mechanism for foreign DNA.