The Mycobacterium avium complex comprises intracellular bacteria associated with disseminated infection in patients with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Immune defects that lead to infection are unknown but cytokines appear to play an important role in the immunomodulation of host defence mechanisms. We evaluated the cytokine profiles seen temporally after murine M. avium infection. Spleen cells were obtained from M. avium-infected C57BL/6 mice and uninfected mice at weeks 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Cells were cultured in vitro and subsequently pulsed with killed M. avium. Supernatants were collected from the cultured splenic cells and the concentrations of interleukin-6 (IL-6), transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF-beta 1) and tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) were measured. TGF-beta 1 was detected at week 1, followed by IL-6 production at week 2. Elevated TNF-alpha levels were observed at week 3. The addition of polyclonal anti-TGF-beta 1 antibody to M. avium-infected peritoneal macrophages in the presence of splenic cell supernatants from weeks 1, 3 and 5 led to decreased bacterial counts compared to controls. Anti-IL-6 antibody did not have any effect on macrophage anti-mycobacterial activity. Concurrently, we observed decreased expression of TNF-alpha receptors on infected macrophages. We propose that the early elevated levels of TGF-beta 1, a known suppressor of macrophage function, in conjunction with down-regulation of TNF-alpha receptors may help explain the suboptimal macrophage response to TNF-alpha, leading to impaired anti-mycobacterial activity.