The purpose of this study was threefold: to determine if the variant surface coat glycoprotein (VSG) of Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense induces IL-1 alpha; to study the kinetics of IL-1 alpha transcription, maturation and secretion; and to compare VSG to LPS in its ability to induce IL-1 alpha. VSG was added to cultures of the P388D1 murine macrophage cell line. RNA was dotted onto nitrocellulose and hybridized with a murine IL-1 alpha cDNA probe. Maximal production of IL-1 alpha mRNA occurred in a dose- and time-dependent manner, peaking at 25 micrograms/ml VSG, within 2 h. Induction of IL-1 alpha was not due to contaminants because 1) absorption of VSG with a mAb abrogated IL-1 alpha mRNA synthesis, 2) the addition of polymyxin B did not affect mRNA levels, and 3) cellular IL-1 alpha was detectable in VSG-treated splenocytes from endotoxin nonresponder C3H/HeJ mice. Murine splenic macrophages also had enhanced levels of IL-1 alpha mRNA after administration of VSG in vivo or during an acute infection. Antiserum generated against the synthetic peptide SGDDSKYPV (amino acids 177-185 from the murine IL-1 alpha sequence) was used to measure the levels of the 33-, 22-, and 14-kDa proteins in cell lysates and medium of VSG-stimulated P388D1 cells. The 22-kDa protein was the predominant cellular form until secretion started. Secretion of the 14-kDa form began abruptly 6 to 8 h after the addition of VSG. By 12 h, the 33-kDa precursor was the major cytoplasmic form. In comparative analyses, LPS-stimulated P388D1 cells produced more transcript, generated peak levels of 22-kDa protein 3 h earlier, and began to secrete the 14-kDa molecule 5 h earlier. The rate of IL-1 alpha accumulation in the medium was linear between 6 and 24 h after LPS treatment, but began to drop by 8 h in VSG-treated cells. Functional (comitogenic) IL-1 activity was also detected in media from VSG-treated splenic macrophages and P388D1 cells. Activity peaked at 50 micrograms/ml and was lost if 0.2% IL-1 antisera were added to the cultures.