IL-1 is a multifunctional, immunoregulatory polypeptide produced by many cell types. Because activated macrophages are a major source of IL-1 and have also been implicated in the pathogenesis of autoimmune disease, we investigated the regulation of IL-1 expression in several autoimmune-prone strains of mice. Peritoneal macrophages derived from the autoimmune-prone strains MRL/lpr, MRL/+, NZB, and NZB/W F1, as well as NZW, displayed transient expression of IL-1 in contrast to the stable expression characteristic of control normal strains including A. Thy, A/J, B10, B10.A, B10.D2, C57BL/6, BALB/c, and C3H/HeN. The down-regulation of IL-1 by macrophages from the autoimmune-prone mice was not attributable to inherently defective signal transduction because macrophages from both the normal and autoimmune-prone strains displayed substantial initial levels of cell-associated and secreted IL-1. However, during the first 2 to 3 days in culture, macrophages from autoimmune-prone mice became progressively refractory to both induction and maintenance of IL-1, a pattern that correlated with changes in the levels of IL-1 alpha and beta mRNA. The progressive reduction in IL-1 expression by macrophages from these autoimmune-prone strains was not due to a reduction in general metabolism or viability, because expression of cell surface antigens, including MHC class I and II Ag and LFA-1, was comparable to that of control macrophages. Because IL-1 plays a critical role in the homeostasis of a variety of cell lineages, defective expression, and maintenance of IL-1 (and perhaps other cytokines) by macrophages from the autoimmune-prone strains may contribute to the immune dysregulation that develops in these mice. Alternatively, cytokine dysregulation might not contribute directly to disease, but rather reflect a more basic defect related to specific signal transducing or gene regulatory pathways.