The production of TNF/cachectin by human B cell lines and tonsillar B cells was examined. Of the 15 B cell lines examined, 9 cell lines synthesize TNF mRNA constitutively. PMA stimulated most cell lines to accumulate increased amounts of TNF. SeD, 8866P, 32al, RPMI 1788, and four bone marrow-derived EBV-transformed cell lines accumulated high levels of TNF mRNA when stimulated by PMA. TNF production by these cell lines was examined. RPMI 1788 and WIH8 produced little TNF constitutively, but synthesized 5-7 ng/ml TNF when stimulated by PMA. A pre-B cell line, Nalm-6, did not synthesize any detectable amount of TNF mRNA, even with PMA stimulation. Tonsillar B cells could also be stimulated to produce TNF. PMA or Staphylococcus aureus Cowan I strain (SAC) alone stimulated some TNF mRNA accumulation, whereas B cell growth factor (BCGF) or anti-mu did not. This accumulation was synergistically elevated by the combinations of PMA and SAC, or PMA and anti-mu. BCGF increased PMA-, SAC-, PMA plus SAC-, or PMA plus anti-mu- induced TNF mRNA accumulations about twofold. The accumulation of TNF mRNA in tonsillar B cells stimulated by PMA plus SAC was between 32 and 48 h, the same peak interval as the accumulation of TNF and IL-2 mRNA in tonsillar T cells. This is in contrast to PMA or PMA plus A23187- stimulated RPMI 1788 cells in which TNF mRNA accumulation was maximal at 1-2 h. TNF activities found in tonsillar B cell supernatants correlated with the TNF mRNA levels in the cells. However, more TNF activity was found on the second-day than the third-day supernatants, indicating active TNF uptake by the B cells. Cyclosporin A (CsA) inhibited SAC and anti-mu responses in B cells in much the same way as the anti-CD3 responses in T cells. SAC-, PMA plus SAC-, and PMA plus anti-mu-stimulated, but not PMA-stimulated, increases in TNF mRNA accumulations in tonsillar B cells were inhibited by CsA. TNF production seems to increase in parallel with B cell proliferation, but the relationship of these two functions needs to be further examined.