We present evidence that human peripheral blood lymphocytes, free of contaminating monocytes, rapidly produce high levels of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) when stimulated with phorbol diester and calcium ionophore, and lower but significant levels of TNF when stimulated with mitogens. These two types of inducers act preferentially on T cells, both CD4+ and CD8+. NK cells produce TNF only when stimulated with phorbol diester and calcium ionophore, and they do so at a much lower level than T cells. The procedures used in the purification of lymphocytes and the differential ability to respond to various inducers allow us to exclude that monocytes or basophils contaminating the lymphocyte preparation participate in the production of TNF. In particular, LPS, a potent inducer of TNF production from monocytes, is unable to induce significant levels of TNF in the lymphocyte preparations. The TNF produced by lymphocytes has antigenic, physicochemical, and biochemical characteristics identical to those of the TNF produced by myeloid cell lines or monocytes upon stimulation with LPS. LT is also produced by lymphocyte preparations. Production of TNF and LT proteins in response to the different inducers is paralleled by accumulation of cytoplasmic TNF and LT mRNA. Both at mRNA and at protein levels, stimulation of T lymphocytes with phorbol diester and calcium ionophore preferentially induces TNF, whereas mitogen stimulation preferentially induces LT. Our data suggest that the TNF and LT genes, two closely linked genes encoding two partially homologous proteins with almost identical biological functions, are independently regulated in lymphocytes.