The objective of these experiments was to evaluate the production of IL-1ra, a specific receptor antagonist of IL-1, by human in vitro-derived macrophages, a model for differentiated macrophages. IL-1ra protein levels in supernatants and lysates of cultured cells were determined by a specific ELISA. Relative steady-state IL-1ra mRNA levels were measured using a specific cDNA probe. Human monocytes were differentiated by 6 days culture in either medium or granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF), after which the effects of subsequent LPS and/or GM-CSF on the production of IL-1ra were evaluated. In vitro-derived macrophages cultured in medium for 6 days constitutively produced IL-1ra protein during the 24-h period of the 7th day in culture. The constitutive production of IL-1ra by medium-aged cells correlated with low steady-state IL-1ra mRNA levels determined over this same time period. In contrast, cells cultured for 6 days in GM-CSF synthesized significantly increased levels of IL-1ra protein during the 7th day in culture but the secreted levels remained unchanged. Cells differentiated in GM-CSF displayed enhanced steady-state levels of IL-1ra mRNA in comparison with cells aged in medium. Stimulation of in vitro-derived macrophages aged for 6 days in medium or in GM-CSF, with LPS or adherent IgG, did not result in increased levels of IL-1ra protein production in comparison with non-LPS stimulated cells. The IL-1ra protein detected in the supernatants of cells differentiated in GM-CSF was biologically active in the IL-1-augmented murine thymocyte proliferation assay. By Western blot analysis, the IL-1ra protein in the in vitro-derived macrophage supernatants was predominantly the 22- to 24-kDa glycosylated species, whereas the lysates contained additional lower molecular weight forms. These results suggest that as monocytes differentiate in vitro into macrophages, they constitutively produce IL-1ra protein and that this production is enhanced by the continuous presence of GM-CSF.