Organisms belonging to the Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) are common pathogens in immunosuppressed and AIDS patients. This paper reviews the role of cytokines in the pathogenesis of MAC infection. MAC organisms mainly infect monocytes and macrophages, and the effect of HIV infection on susceptibility of macrophages to MAC infection is largely unknown. Both GM-CSF and tumour necrosis factor-alpha can induce mycobacteriostatic/mycobactericidal activity in MAC-infected macrophages. The activity of interferon-gamma on mycobacterial infection appears to be dependent on the type of macrophage: in murine peritoneal and human monocyte-derived macrophages, interferon-gamma does not inhibit the intracellular growth of MAC, whereas in intestinal macrophages interferon-gamma results in inhibition of MAC. Transforming growth factor-beta 1, interleukin-10 and interleukin-6 have all been shown to counteract the immunoactivating cytokines and MAC survival may be due to induction of these inhibitory cytokines within the macrophage. GM-CSF has been given to patients with disseminated MAC infection. Isolated macrophages from these patients demonstrated increased superoxide anion production and enhanced mycobacteriostatic/cidal activity compared with macrophages isolated from the same patients before GM-CSF treatment. These results suggest that GM-CSF may have potential in the treatment of MAC infection.