We purified poly(A)+ mRNA from the spleen and lymph nodes at designated times after infection with Leishmania major in genetically susceptible BALB/c and resistant C57BL/6 mice. The steady-state levels of IL-2, IFN-gamma, IL-4, and IL-1 beta mRNA were determined using Northern hybridizations. IL-2 mRNA levels in the infected organs of BALB/c and C57BL/6 mice were comparable after infection, but IFN-gamma and IL-4 mRNA levels were reciprocally expressed. Levels of IFN-gamma mRNA in C57BL/6 draining nodes and spleen were significantly greater than in BALB/c mice except at 4 and 6 wk of infection, when splenic IFN-gamma mRNA levels were transiently comparable. In contrast, IL-4 mRNA was apparent only in BALB/c and not in C57BL/6 nodes and spleen. Tissue levels of IL-1 beta mRNA were 10-20-fold greater in BALB/c mice. BALB/c mice were pretreated with GK1.5 mAb, a manipulation that promotes healing of subsequent infection by transiently depleting L3T4+ cells. At 8 wk of infection, by which time lymphoid organs were repopulated with L3T4+ cells, GK1.5-pretreated BALB/c mice produced IFN-gamma, but not IL-4 message. Serum levels of IgE were markedly elevated in infected BALB/c, but not in infected C57BL/6 or GK1.5-pretreated BALB/c mice, consistent with in vivo biologic activity of IL-4 in nonhealing mice. Treatment of infected BALB/c mice with neutralizing anti-IL-4 antibody abolished the elevation of serum IgE and significantly attenuated the progression of disease as assessed by size and ulceration of the lesion, and by reduction in the number of tissue parasites. Both protective and deleterious responses to Leishmania infection have previously been shown to be L3T4+ cell dependent. Our findings are consistent with the differential expansion of protective, IFN-gamma-producing Th1 cells in healing mice, and the expansion of deleterious, IL-4-producing Th2 cells in nonhealing mice. The inverse relationship of IFN-gamma and IL-4 gene expression during leishmaniasis may underlie the divergence of cellular and humoral immunity that occurs during chronic infection with Leishmania and possibly other intracellular parasites.