MRL/MP-lpr/lpr (MRL/lpr) mice develop a spontaneous autoimmune disease. Serum from these mice contained significantly higher concentrations of nitrite/nitrate than serum from age-matched control MRL/MP-+/+ (MRL/+), BALB/c or CBA/6J mice. Spleen and peritoneal cells from MRL/lpr mice also produced significantly more nitric oxide (NO) than those from the control mice when cultured with interferon (IFN) gamma and lipopolysaccharide (LPS) in vitro. It is interesting to note that peritoneal cells from MRL/lpr mice also produced markedly higher concentrations of interleukin (IL) 12 than those from MRL/+ or BALB/c mice when cultured with same stimuli. It is striking that cells from MRL/lpr mice produced high concentrations of NO when cultured cells from MRL/+ or BALB/c mice. The enhanced NO synthesis induced by IFN-gamma/LPS was substantially inhibited by anti-IL-12 antibody. In addition, IL-12-induced NO production can also be markedly inhibited by anti-IFN-gamma antibody, but only weakly inhibited by anti-tumor necrosis factor alpha antibody. The effect of IL-12 on NO production was dependent on the presence of natural killer and possibly T cells. Serum from MRL/lpr mice contained significantly higher concentrations of IL-12 compared with those of MRL/+ or BALB/c control mice. Daily injection of recombinant IL-12 led to increased serum levels of IFN-gamma and NO metabolites, and accelerated glomerulonephritis in the young MRL/lpr mice (but not in the MRL/+ mice) compared with controls injected with phosphate-buffered saline alone. These data, together with previous finding that NO synthase inhibitors can ameliorate autoimmune disease in MRL/lpr mice, suggest that high capacity of such mice to produce IL-12 and their greater responsiveness to IL-12, leading to the production of high concentrations of NO, are important factors in this spontaneous model of autoimmune disease.