The onset of acute graft-vs-host disease (aGVHD) is accompanied by macrophage (M phi) priming and the presence of bacteria-derived LPS in the sera of transplanted animals. Priming of M phi occurs during aGVHD despite the suppression of T cell function. We have investigated whether IL-12 mediates the continued production of IFN-gamma during the state of T cell immunosuppression that accompanies aGVHD. Acute GVHD was induced in nonirradiated AxC57BL/6F1 mice by the injection of C57BL/6 lymphoid cells. Despite T cell immunosuppression, M phi became primed, as shown by their expression of inducible nitric oxide synthase mRNA and their production of nitric oxide in response to LPS. Continual exposure to IFN-gamma was required to maintain a primed state in M phi during aGVHD. IL-12 p40 peptide mRNA was increased in M phi purified from animals undergoing aGVHD 14 days after transplantation. Target organs of aGVHD, including thymus, salivary gland, and lung, showed increased IFN-gamma mRNA between days 7 and 14 after transplantation. The increase was accompanied by an induction of mRNA for the p40 peptide of IL-12 and inducible nitric oxide synthase within the target organs. These results provide evidence for localized production of IFN-gamma within aGVHD target organs and suggest that it is mediated by LPS-induced production of IL-12 by M phi. Our data elucidate the mechanism of activation of M phi during aGVHD that results in TNF-alpha and nitric oxide production and delineates the effector role of M phi in the pathology of aGVHD.