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BACKGROUND: Tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) is often considered the main proinflammatory cytokine induced by lipopolysaccharide (LPS) and consequently the critical mediator of the lethality associated with septic shock. MATERIALS AND METHODS: We used mice carrying a deletion of both the lymphotoxin alpha (LT-alpha) and TNF-alpha genes to assess the role of TNF in the cytokine cascade and lethality induced by LPS. RESULTS: Initial production of IL-1 alpha, IL-1 beta, IL-6, and IL-10 is comparable in wild-type and mutant mice. However, at later times, expression of IL-1 alpha, IL-1 beta, and IL-10 is prolonged, whereas that of IL-6 decreases in mutant mice. Expression of IFN-gamma is almost completely abrogated in mutants, which is in agreement with a more significant alteration of the late phase of the cytokine cascade. We measured similar LD50 (600 micrograms) for the intravenous injection of LPS in mice of the three genotypes (+/+, +/-, -/-), demonstrating that the absence of TNF does not confer long-term protection from lethality. However, death occurred much more slowly in mutant mice, who were protected more efficiently from death by CNI 1493, an inhibitor of proinflammatory cytokine production, than were wild-type mice. DISCUSSION: Thus, while TNF-alpha is not required for the induction of these cytokines by LPS, it modulates the kinetics of their expression. The lethality studies simultaneously confirm a role for TNF as a mediator of early lethality and establish that, in the absence of these cytokines, other mediators take over, resulting in the absence of long-term protection from LPS toxicity.