Proinflammatory cytokines provoked by circulating bacterial LPS mediate many of the destructive host responses characteristic of septic shock. To determine if the lymphokine IFN-gamma has a similar pathogenic role during endotoxic shock, mice were pretreated with murine rIFN-gamma (rMuIFN-gamma) at various times relative to challenge with Salmonella enteritidis LPS. Subsequent mortality was increased when rMuIFN-gamma was administered before or up to 4 h after endotoxin challenge. Pretreatment with rMuIFN-gamma resulted in nearly fivefold increases in serum TNF during endotoxemia, but TNF levels were unaffected by IFN administered after endotoxin. The increased levels of serum TNF probably reflected enhanced translation of this factor, as tissue expression of TNF mRNA did not increase correspondingly in IFN-pretreated mice. To examine the role of IFN-gamma produced endogenously during endotoxemia, mice were pretreated with 0.5 mg of anti-IFN-gamma mAb before endotoxin injection. This treatment significantly reduced mortality from endotoxic shock but caused only minor decreases in serum TNF. Anti-IFN-gamma administered 2 h after endotoxin was similarly protective. These results demonstrate a significant role for IFN-gamma in the pathology of septic shock, both indirectly as an activator of monokines known to promote lethality and possibly by other, late-acting mechanisms.