Tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha) is a potent immunomodulator and proinflammatory cytokine that has been implicated in the pathogenesis of autoimmune and infectious diseases. For example, plasma levels of TNF alpha are positively correlated with severity and mortality in malaria and leishmaniasis. We have previously described a polymorphism at -308 in the TNF alpha promoter and shown that the rare allele, TNF2, lies on the extended haplotype HLA-A1-B8-DR3-DQ2, which is associated with autoimmunity and high TNF alpha production. Homozygosity for TNF2 carries a sevenfold increased risk of death from cerebral malaria. Here we demonstrate, with reporter genes under the control of the two allelic TNF promoters, that TNF2 is a much stronger transcriptional activator than the common allele (TNF1) in a human B cell line. Footprint analysis using DNase I and B cell nuclear extract showed the generation of a hypersensitive site at -308 and an adjacent area of protection. There was no difference in affinity of the DNA-binding protein(s) between the two alleles. These results show that this polymorphism has direct effects on TNF alpha gene regulation and may be responsible for the association of TNF2 with high TNF alpha phenotype and more severe disease in infections such as malaria and leishmaniasis.