Macrophages exposed to lymphokines (LK) before exposure to parasites develop the capacity to resist infection with amastigotes of Leishmania major. Activity of LK for induction of this activated macrophage effector function is abrogated by depleting the LK of IFN-gamma, yet IFN-gamma is incapable of inducing the activity by itself. To identify the factors in LK that serve as second signals for induction of resistance to infection, we exposed macrophages to the following cytokines available as recombinant or highly purified reagents: CSF-1, granulocyte/macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF), IL-1, -2, -3, -4, and -5, and IFN-alpha/beta. None of these factors induced resistance to infection by themselves or in combination with each other; in the presence of 50 U/ml IFN-gamma, three cytokines were active: GM-CSF, IL-2, and IL-4. IFN-gamma was an essential component of the activation cascade but was insufficient by itself to induce the effector reaction. Cytokines that act as cofactors with IFN-gamma worked directly on macrophages and not through another cell in the peritoneal cell (PC) cultures. Activation of PC depleted of Thy-1.2+ cells (85 +/- 5% macrophages) and bone marrow-derived macrophages (100% macrophages) showed that 50% maximal doses of GM-CSF, IL-2, and IL-4 for these macrophage-enriched populations were not different than for untreated PC. Unlike other effector reactions of activated macrophages, bacterial LPS did not synergistically enhance the activity of any of the cytokines, alone or in combination with IFN-gamma. Antibody depletion of the active cytokines from LK, singly or in combination, failed to alter the dose response of the active factors in whole LK for induction of resistance to infection. Thus, multiple factors can provide the second signal for IFN-gamma in the induction of resistance to infection, namely, GM-CSF, IL-2, IL-4, and at least two additional undefined factors in whole LK. Resistance to infection may be the first example of an activated macrophage effector reaction that has an absolute requirement for more than one endogenous signal for its induction.