We have investigated the functional interaction between IL-2 and TNF on the generation of alloreactive CTL. The study was performed by using primary mixed cultures of lymphocytes from a MHC-recombinant sibling identical for MHC class II Ag (DR, DP, DQ) and displaying MHC class I disparity. Our data show that MHC class I disparity can trigger the induction of TNF receptor without promoting significant TNF production. Addition of exogenous TNF at the sensitizing phase of the primary mixed lymphocyte reaction did not result in CTL activation. However, when simultaneously added with IL-2, TNF could promote an optimal induction of cytotoxic T cell generation. The enhanced lytic ability of MHC class-I primed CTL by TNF was associated with a selective up-regulation of Tac Ag and subsequent amplification of cell proliferation. Furthermore, TNF was also found to induce a considerable increase in IL-2-induced intracellular benzyloxycarbonyl-L-lysine thiobenzylester-esterase activity by MHC class I-primed cells. TNF did not affect the expression of LFA1, CD2, CD4, and CD8, molecules that are associated with CTL-target interactions, on responder cells. These results extend our earlier observations on the role of class I MHC molecules that may function to transduce activation signals and suggest that TNF may be a potent mediator involved in the IL-2-induced acquisition of optimal lytic competence by precursor cytotoxic T cells.