We have studied the effect of cytokine priming by recombinant human tumour necrosis factor alpha (rhTNF alpha) on the release of vasoactive mediators from human polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNs). Supernatants of human PMNs (100 microliters, 5 x 10(7) ml, from 12 donors) relaxed precontracted rabbit aortic rings. The relaxations were preceded by a transient contraction in four experiments. In contrast, supernatants of PMNs incubated with rhTNF alpha (0.3 nM, 30 min, 37 degrees C) elicited variable vascular responses that consisted of either a sustained contraction (n = 4), a transient contraction followed by a sustained relaxation (n = 2), or a sustained relaxation only (n = 6). The vascular tone produced by the rhTNF alpha-treated PMN supernatant was significantly greater over 30 min than that produced by the control supernatant (p < 0.01). Endothelium removal prevented the PMN-induced contractions and significantly decreased the vascular tone produced by all rhTNF alpha-treated PMN supernatants (p < 0.05). The PMN supernatants had no vasoactive effect on aortic rings at resting tension. Molecular size analysis indicated that the PMN-derived contractile mediator is > 30,000 Da. These results suggest that human PMNs, primed by rhTNF alpha, release a stable endothelium-dependent vasoconstrictor that opposes the action of a stable, spontaneously released direct vasodilator.