A monocyte-derived factor with IL-1-like properties has recently been shown to cause resorption of bone in organ culture. We have investigated the action of IL-1 on disaggregated populations of osteoclasts, incubated alone or in the presence of osteoblastic cells, in an attempt to identify the target cell for IL-1 in bone, and to elucidate the mechanism by which IL-1 induces osteoclastic resorption. Osteoclasts were disaggregated from neonatal rat long bones and incubated on slices of human femoral cortical bone. Under these conditions, the majority of osteoclasts form distinctive excavations in the bone surface within 24 h, the volume of which can be quantified by computer-assisted morphometric and stereophotogrammetic techniques. IL-1 had no effect on bone resorption by osteoclasts alone, but when incubated in the presence of calvarial cells or cloned osteosarcoma cells, it induced a 3.8 (+/- 0.38)-fold increase in osteoclastic bone resorption, with significant enhancement at concentrations of greater than or equal to 30 pg/ml. The osteoblastic populations themselves did not resorb bone. The mechanism by which osteoblastic cells stimulate osteoclasts did not appear to depend upon PG synthesis; nor could we detect a diffusible substance in the medium of stimulated cocultures. These results indicate that IL-1 stimulates bone resorption through a primary action on osteoblasts, which are induced by IL-1 to transmit a short-range signal that stimulates osteoclastic bone resorption.