Murine tumor necrosis factor (mTNF) stimulates production of platelet-activating factor (PAF) by cultured rat peritoneal macrophages in amounts comparable to those formed during treatment with the calcium ionophore A23187 or phagocytosis of zymosan. The cell-associated PAF that was released into the medium was identical to synthetic PAF, as determined with physicochemical, chromatographic, and enzymatic assays. Furthermore, de novo synthesis of PAF by macrophages was demonstrated by the incorporation of radioactive precursors such as [3H]acetyl-coenzyme A or [3H]2-lyso-PAF. Macrophages incubated with mTNF for 4 h synthesized PAF only during the first h of treatment. At this time, the amount of cell-associated PAF was approximately equal to that released into the medium. The cell-associated PAF decreased afterwards, whereas that in the medium did not correspondingly increase, suggesting that some PAF was being degraded. The response of rat macrophages to different doses of mTNF and human TNF (hTNF) was examined. Maximal synthesis of PAF was obtained with 10 ng/ml of mTNF and 50 ng/ml of hTNF. This finding may be explained by a lower affinity of hTNF for TNF receptors of rat cells. The hTNF stimulated production of PAF by human vascular endothelial cells cultured from the umbilical cord vein. The time course of PAF synthesis was slower than that observed with macrophages, with maximal production between 4 and 6 h of treatment. Optimal synthesis of PAF was obtained with 10 ng/ml of hTNF. Only 20-30% of the PAF synthesized by endothelial cells was released into the medium, even after several hours of incubation. Synthesis of PAF in response to TNF was also detected in rat polymorphonuclear neutrophils, but not in human tumor cells and dermal fibroblasts. Therefore, production of PAF is a specialized response that is transient in macrophages continuously treated with TNF, and that appears to be controlled by unidentified regulatory mechanisms.