IL-12, formerly known as cytotoxic lymphocyte maturation factor, is a cytokine that stimulates proliferation of PHA-activated human peripheral blood lymphoblasts and synergizes with low concentrations of IL-2 in the induction of lymphokine-activated killer cells. IL-12 is a 75-kDa heterodimer composed of disulfide-bonded 40-kDa and 35-kDa subunits. mAb prepared against a partially purified preparation of natural IL-12 have been characterized by 1) immunoprecipitation of 125I-labeled IL-12, 2) immunodepletion of IL-12 bioactivity, 3) Western blotting of IL-12, 4) inhibition of [125I]IL-12 binding to its cellular receptor, and 5) neutralization of IL-12 bioactivity. Twenty antibodies immunoprecipitate 125I-labeled IL-12 and immunodeplete IL-12 bioactivity as assessed in the T cell proliferation and lymphokine-activated killer cell induction assays. Western blot analysis demonstrated that each antibody binds to the 75-kDa heterodimer and to the 40-kDa subunit. An IL-12R-binding assay identified 12 individual antibodies that inhibited the binding of [125I]IL-12 to its cellular receptor. Two inhibitory antibodies, 4A1 and 7B2, were tested in the neutralization assay and found to block IL-12 bioactivity whereas one noninhibitory antibody, 8E3, was shown not to neutralize IL-12 bioactivity. Antibodies 4A1 and 8E3 can simultaneously bind to the 75-kDa heterodimer demonstrating that inhibitory and noninhibitory epitopes are spatially distinct on the 40-kDa protein. The ability of antibodies specific for the 40-kDa subunit of IL-12 to block receptor binding of [125I]IL-12 and to neutralize IL-12 bioactivity suggests that localized determinants on the 40-kDa subunit may be necessary for binding to the IL-12 cellular receptor.