Tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a macrophage product released in response to endotoxin and other stimuli, has been shown to be a central mediator of endotoxin or septic shock. However, its highly conserved and wide-ranging physiological effects suggest that it may also be an essential cytokine in the host defense against acute bacterial infection or sepsis. A single nontoxic dose of human recombinant TNF administered intravenously 24 h prior to a lethal infusion of Escherichia coli lipopolysaccharide (LPS) completely prevented acute LPS-induced hypotension, ameliorated tissue injury in the lungs and liver, and improved survival in male Fisher 344 rats. The protective effects of TNF were dose dependent and required a 24-h pretreatment interval. After the infusion of LPS, animals in both groups (TNF-treated animals and saline-pretreated controls) initially appeared acutely ill and had a similar severe metabolic acidosis, indicating that TNF did not inactivate or prevent the toxic effects of LPS. Twelve hours after the administration of TNF, the gene for manganous superoxide dismutase, a mitochondrial enzyme which scavenges toxic reactive oxygen species and is induced during conditions which generate a free radical stress, was expressed in liver tissue, suggesting that the induction of manganous superoxide dismutase may be an important in vivo protective mechanism against cellular injury during lethal endotoxemia.