Alpha-hemolysin is an Escherichia coli exotoxin that enhances bacterial virulence, has profound effects on leukocytes in vitro, and induces the release of interleukin-1 (IL-1) but not tumor necrosis factor (TNF) from human monocytes in vitro. The purpose of this study was to examine alpha- hemolysin's influence on virulence and TNF and IL-1 production in vivo. Two genetically engineered, isogeneic strains of E. coli were used; one variant produces alpha-hemolysin, and the other does not. Male BALB/c mice were injected with either of the two variants and serum TNF and IL-1 were assayed. These results were compared with those obtained from the injection of either of two serotypes of lipopolysaccharide (LPS). The nonhemolytic E. coli strain produced no mortality and no significant elevation of serum TNF or IL-1 levels. In contrast, equal inocula of the hemolytic E. coli strain produced significant mortality and elevation of serum IL-1 levels. No significant elevation of TNF levels was detected in this group despite high-level mortality. A pattern of induction of mortality and elevation of serum IL-1 levels without elevation of serum TNF levels is distinct from the pattern typical of LPS. In these experiments, both serotypes of LPS caused elevations of TNF and IL-1 levels whether or not mortality was induced. Thus, alpha- hemolysin produces a cytokine response in vivo that is similar to that previously demonstrated in vitro by Bhakdi et al. (S. Bhakdi, M. Muhly, S. Korom, and G. Schmidt, J. Clin. Invest. 85:1746-1753, 1990) and appears to induce mortality independently of serum TNF.