IL-12 is a potent induce of IFN-gamma and is associated with a wide variety of immunoregulatory activities. Using murine CMV (MCMV) and lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) models of acute viral infection, we show here that IL-12 is integrally involved in certain aspects of antiviral immunity. Experiments evaluating the production and function of IL-12 demonstrated the induction of biologically active factor early during Smith strain MCMV, but not Armstrong strain LCMV, infection. The MCMV-induced IL-12 was responsible for early NK cell IFN-gamma production and viral control, as in vivo IL-12 neutralization by Ab treatment blocked both of these. In contrast, NK cell IFN-gamma production could not be detected during LCMV infection, and IL-12 neutralization had no effect on early LCMV replication. In both infections, treatments neutralizing IL-12 failed to alter either early NK cell cytotoxicity or later T cell responses, including IFN-gamma production and viral clearance on days 7 and 9 after infection. These data demonstrate the induction of IL-12 production during certain viral infections and the function of IL-12 for eliciting NK cell IFN-gamma production and antiviral defense. Furthermore, they suggest the existence of IL-12-independent mechanisms for IFN-gamma induction and viral control by T cells.