Tumor necrosis factor has been implicated in the activation of blood coagulation in septicemia, a condition commonly associated with intravascular coagulation and disturbances of hemostasis. To evaluate the early dynamics and the route of the in vivo coagulative response to tumor necrosis factor, we performed a controlled study in six healthy men, monitoring the activation of the common and intrinsic pathways of coagulation with highly sensitive and specific radioimmunoassays. Recombinant human tumor necrosis factor, administered as an intravenous bolus injection (50 micrograms per square meter of body-surface area), induced an early and short-lived rise in circulating levels of the activation peptide of factor X, reaching maximal values after 30 to 45 minutes (mean +/- SEM increase after 45 minutes, 34.2 +/- 18.2 percent; tumor necrosis factor vs. saline, P = 0.015). This was followed by a gradual and prolonged increase in the plasma concentration of the prothrombin fragment F1+2, peaking after four to five hours (mean increase after five hours, 348.0 +/- 144.8 percent; tumor necrosis factor vs. saline, P less than 0.0001). These findings signify the formation of factor Xa (activated factor X) and the activation of prothrombin. Activation of the intrinsic pathway could not be detected by a series of measurements of the plasma levels of factor XII, prekallikrein, factor XIIa-C1 inhibitor complexes, kallikrein-C1 inhibitor complexes, and the activation peptide of factor IX. The delay between the maximal activation of factor X and that of prothrombin amounted to several hours, indicating that neutralization of factor Xa activity was slow. We conclude that a single injection of tumor necrosis factor elicits a rapid and sustained activation of the common pathway of coagulation, probably induced through the extrinsic route. Our results suggest that tumor necrosis factor could play an important part in the early activation of the hemostatic mechanism in septicemia.