Human peripheral blood mononuclear cells activated with concanavalin A (Con A) or lipopolysaccharide (LPS) produce, respectively, lymphokines (LK) of 50,000 Mr or monokines (MK) of 20,000 Mr that inhibit the growth and collagen production of cultured human dermal fibroblasts. Because antigenic typing of the antiviral activity of these LK and MK preparations revealed that LK contained mainly gamma interferon (IFN-gamma), and MK, primarily IFN-beta, we investigated if any of the fibroblast-inhibiting activities could be attributed to human IFN. Unlike LK and MK, which act within 24 h to inhibit the growth of subconfluent foreskin and adult dermal fibroblasts, samples of purified, natural derived IFN-alpha, -beta, and -gamma and recombinant DNA-derived IFN-alpha 2 and -gamma were ineffective inhibitors at 24 h and required 48-72 h to significantly inhibit growth. However, all IFN did mimic LK/MK action in causing concentration-dependent inhibition of collagen production by confluent fibroblast microcultures. Furthermore, the collagen production-inhibiting activity of Con A-induced LK supernatant and its 50,000 Mr fraction was completely suppressed by 10(3) neutralizing U/ml of either polyclonal or monoclonal antibody to IFN-gamma, while polyclonal antibodies to IFN-alpha and -beta had no effect. Similarly, the collagen production-inhibiting activity of LPS-induced MK supernatant and its 20,000 Mr fraction was suppressed by polyclonal anti-IFN-beta but not by anti-IFN-alpha or -gamma. Anti-IFN failed to reverse early-acting LK or MK growth-inhibiting activities. These data suggest collagen production-inhibiting LK and MK are IFN-gamma and IFN-beta, respectively, and that early acting, growth-inhibiting LK and MK are not IFN.