The capacity of the tumor necrosis factors, TNF-alpha and TNF-beta, products of activated macrophages and lymphocytes, respectively, to stimulate interleukin 1 (IL-1) release from endothelial cells derived from human umbilical veins was examined in vitro. Recombinant TNF-alpha caused IL-1 release by 4 hr with maximal levels of 17 U/ml by 24 hr; half-maximal stimulation occurred at approximately 80 pM. In contrast, recombinant TNF-beta was a relatively poor stimulus for IL-1 release. Even at concentrations as high as 600 pM, only 3 U of IL-1/ml were recovered; maximal IL-1 release (10 to 12 U/ml) required up to 5 nM TNF-beta. Natural, glycosated human TNF-beta was comparable in activity to recombinant TNF-beta. TNF-beta did not directly inhibit the IL-1 comitogenesis assay, nor was there evidence that TNF-beta induced the release of an IL-1 inhibitor, in that supernatants generated in the presence of TNF-beta did not inhibit thymocyte proliferation to a recombinant IL-1 standard. Binding of the recombinant TNF to endothelial monolayers was assessed by using [125I]TNF-alpha in competition studies with cold TNF-alpha and TNF-beta. Binding of TNF-alpha was half-maximal at 80 pM with an average of 664 receptors/cell and Kd = 0.043 nM. Although TNF-beta was capable of fully competing for [125I]TNF-alpha binding, half-maximal binding occurred at 800 pM TNF-beta. These data suggest that the TNF receptors on human endothelial cells may reflect the structural differences between these two homologous cytokines.