Recombinant preparations of TNF and lymphotoxin (LT) increase the expression of class I MHC antigens on cultured human endothelial cells (EC) without inducing expression of class II antigens. These actions are similar to those of rIFN-alpha or rIFN-beta. However, TNF and LT differ from IFN-alpha/beta in that the former synergize with IFN-gamma for class I regulation whereas the latter do not. Furthermore, LT or TNF do not affect IFN-gamma-mediated class II induction at optimal class I inducing concentrations (100 U/ml), whereas IFN-alpha and IFN-beta (at their optimal concentrations of 1,000 U/ml) are strikingly inhibitory. LT and TNF also can further increase expression of class I antigens on cells already maximally stimulated by IFN-alpha or IFN-beta. A recombinant preparation of IL-6 (formerly called 26-kD protein, IFN-beta 2, or B cell stimulating factor 2) was without effect on class I expression in EC. These data make it seem unlikely that the actions of LT or TNF on EC expression of MHC antigens are mediated through autocrine or paracrine production of IFN-alpha, IFN-beta or IL-6. More importantly, they suggest that LT or TNF are more likely to be immunostimulatory, whereas IFN-alpha or IFN-beta are more likely to be immunoinhibitory in vivo, a consideration of potential relevance for cytokine administration to various patient populations.