Current evidence suggests that the gut is the chief portal of entry for organisms of the Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) in AIDS patients. Bacterial invasion of intestinal mucosa presumably occurs through epithelial cells, and M cells in the Peyer's patches, where the bacteria have contact with immunocompetent cells such as macrophages and T and B lymphocytes. As mucosal macrophages are probably the first line of defense against MAC, we examined their ability to inhibit intracellular growth of MAC when properly stimulated. Mouse intestinal macrophages were purified, infected with MAC 101, serovar 1, and MAC 86-2686, serovar 16, and subsequently stimulated with recombinant tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), gamma interferon (IFN-gamma), granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF), or macrophage colony-stimulating factor (M-CSF). Viable intracellular bacteria were quantitated at 24 h after infection and again after 4 days of infection. Stimulation with TNF-alpha, IFN-gamma, and GM-CSF, but not M-CSF, was associated with mycobacteriostatic and/or mycobactericidal activity in macrophages. Treatment with 10(3) U of TNF-alpha, GM-CSF, and IFN-gamma per ml at 24 h prior to infection with MAC resulted in a significant enhancement in killing of MAC at 4 days after infection, compared with that observed for macrophages exposed to cytokines after infection. When stimulated with lipopolysaccharide or live MAC, intestinal macrophages had produced significantly less TNF-alpha and transforming growth factor beta than had splenic and peritoneal macrophages, although the levels of production of interleukin 6 and interleukin 10 among the three populations of cells were similar. Intestinal macrophages can be stimulated with cytokines to inhibit the intracellular growth of MAC, but they have differentiated abilities to produce cytokines which can modulate the anti-MAC immune response.