DNA-RNA hybridization with an IL-1 alpha cDNA probe was used to monitor the induction of IL-1 in macrophages that were acting as accessory cells for the proliferation of T lymphocytes. Mouse peritoneal macrophages bound and stimulated T lymphocytes in the presence of the mitogens, Con A, or anti-CD3 mAb, but little or no IL-1 mRNA was detectable. In contrast, if the T cells were first sensitized in a mixed leukocyte reaction with dendritic cells and then added to macrophages, IL-1 mRNA was clearly induced. Induction of the IL-1 alpha gene seemed to require the recognition of class II MHC products on the macrophage because of the following observations: specific rather than third-party macrophages were responsive to the T blast but not to T cell-conditioned media; induction was blocked by an anti-Ia mAb; CD4+ rather than CD8+ blasts were active; and polyclonal Con A blasts were much less efficient than antigen-specific T cells. Our data indicate that the strongest signal for IL-1 production during the macrophage-T cell interaction occurs in the efferent limb of the response, after rather than before the formation of class II MHC-restricted T lymphoblasts.