In our studies of host defense to the intracellular protozoan Leishmania major, we uncovered a novel mechanism of antileishmanial defense that involves direct cell contact between effector CD4+ lymphocytes and Leishmania-infected macrophages. The mechanism is distinctive because it does not involve lymphokine secretion and induces no cytotoxic effects in the host cells; its expression is antigen-specific and genetically restricted. We now demonstrate that these effector CD4+ cells display tumor necrosis factor (TNF) on their surface and provide evidence that the membrane-associated TNF is involved in the activation of the antileishmanial defense. Using a Leishmania-specific cloned T-T cell hybridoma line (1B6; CD4+, T helper type 1) that activates antileishmanial defense in macrophages through cell contact and does not secrete TNF, we noted that only cells bearing surface TNF (TNF+), but not ones lacking surface TNF (TNF-), exerted these effects. Moreover, the antileishmanial effects excreted by TNF+ 1B6 cells as well as by lymph node CD4+ TNF+ lymphocytes could be blocked with anti-TNF antibody. We propose that membrane-associated TNF on CD4+ T cells may provide a mechanism of targeting activation signals to macrophages in an antigen-specific and genetically restricted manner.