Two forms (monomeric or dimeric) of the extracellular, ligand-binding portion of the human p80 cell-surface receptor for TNF were used to antagonize TNF activity in vitro and in vivo. The dimeric sTNFR:Fc molecule was a more potent inhibitor of TNF than the monomeric sTNFR (50 to 1000x), as assessed in vitro by inhibition of TNF binding or bioactivity and in vivo by protection of mice from an otherwise lethal injection of LPS. Surprisingly, the dimeric sTNFR:Fc construct demonstrated a beneficial effect even when administered 3 h after a lethal LPS injection (i.e., after serum TNF levels had peaked and receded). To study the mechanism by which the soluble TNFR functions in vivo, serum TNF levels were examined in mice given LPS in the presence or absence of soluble receptor. Administration of a mortality-reducing dose of sTNFR:Fc ablated the rise in serum TNF bioactivity that normally occurs in response to LPS. However, TNF bioactivity was revealed in these "TNF-negative" serum samples when the L929 bioassay was modified by inclusion of a mAb that blocks the binding of murine TNF to the human soluble TNFReceptor. These results indicate that the absence of direct cytolytic activity in the L929 assay was caused by neutralization of TNF, rather than to an absence of TNF in the serum. Moreover, administration of either monomeric sTNFR or low doses of dimeric sTNFR:Fc actually resulted in increased serum TNF levels compared to mice given LPS but no soluble receptor. However, these "agonistic" doses of soluble receptor did not lead to increased mortality when an LD60 dose of LPS was given. Thus, dimeric sTNFR are effective inhibitors of TNF and under some circumstances function simultaneously as both TNF "carriers" and antagonists of TNF biologic activity.