IFN-gamma is known to induce expression of Ia antigens on a variety of cell types. In the present study, this activity of IFN-gamma has been analyzed with a panel of 36 melanoma cell lines, normal melanocytes, and 97 cell lines representing a range of other differentiation lineages. 55% of the melanoma cell lines express Ia antigens in a constitutive manner without IFN-gamma induction. Of the 16 Ia-melanoma lines, 13 could be induced to express Ia antigens by IFN-gamma, whereas three were noninducible. Melanocytes, which do not normally express Ia antigens, are converted to Ia expression by IFN-gamma. Ia antigens expressed constitutively or after IFN-gamma induction were identified with antibodies detecting monomorphic and allomorphic products of DR and DC loci. IFN-gamma appeared to be unique in its ability to induce Ia expression on melanoma and melanocytes; 14 other agents (including IFN-alpha and IFN-beta) known to influence growth or differentiation did not have Ia-inducing activity. Equally striking is the restriction of antigenic changes following IFN-gamma induction to HLA-associated products; of the 38 systems of cell surface antigens examined, only HLA-A,B,C, beta 2m, and Ia antigens were affected. A variety of other Ia- cell types were shown to be Ia-inducible by IFN-gamma; these included established lines of breast, colon, pancreas, bladder, kidney, ovary, and brain cancers, and cultures of normal fibroblasts, kidney epithelia, and epidermal keratinocytes. In contrast, three tumor types, teratocarcinoma, choriocarcinoma, and neuroblastoma, were not inducible for Ia expression, even though IFN-gamma could induce expression of HLA-A,B,C products. The broad representation of Ia antigens on most somatic cell types expressed either constitutively or after IFN-gamma can be viewed in an immunological context (antigen presentation/immune regulatory signals) or could indicate that Ia products have functions other than those related to immune reactions.