Interleukin-6 (IL-6) is a cytokine produced by a number of cells, including macrophages, and is directly involved in the inflammatory response. The production of IL-6 can be stimulated by monokines such as IL-1 and tumor necrosis factor (TNF). Mycobacterium avium complex organisms frequently cause disseminated disease in patients with AIDS. M. avium is an intracellular bacterium that that mainly infects macrophages. Treatment of M. avium-infected macrophage monolayers with recombinant IL-6 decreased the ability of TNF to activate cultured macrophages to inhibit growth of or kill intracellular M. avium (68% +/- 14% decrease in intracellular killing compared with that in monolayers not treated with IL-6). To further evaluate whether this effect was dependent on the down regulation of membrane receptors to TNF, we examined 125I-TNF binding to macrophages previously exposed to IL-6: the expression of TNF receptors was decreased by 78% +/- 9%. The effect of IL-6 on TNF receptors was observed after 4 h and was reversible. Infection of macrophages with different M. avium serovars was associated with release of IL-6, and IL-6 production peaked at 48 h after infection in concentrations ranging from 328 +/- 87 ng/10(5) cells to 907 +/- 224 ng/10(5) cells. IL-6 did not have any influence on the rate of growth of the tested strains of M. avium within or outside macrophages. These results suggest that release of IL-6 by M. avium-infected macrophages may influence the host's immune response and the outcome of the disease.