A critical event in B cell immortilization by Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is the establishment of an autocrine loop where cells produce a growth factor which supports their own proliferation. We investigated the potential of lymphoblastoid cell lines (LCL) and Burkitt lymphoma (BL) cell lines to produce and respond to the cytotoxins, tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) and lymphotoxin (LT). Transformation in vitro of peripheral blood B cells by EBV from seven different donors resulted in spontaneous production of both LT (11542 pg/ml ± 7546, mean ± SD) and, to a lesser extent, TNF-α (197 pg/ml ± 174). Similarly BL cell lines derived from in vivo transformation which developed a ‘LCL-like’ phenotype in vitro (group III) produced more LT (1990 pg/ml ± 1740) than the ‘group I’ BL cell lines (< 40 pg/ml LT) which had maintained the original BL biopsy cell phenotype in vitro. Transformation of periphreal blood B cells to generate LCL also resulted in an increase in surface p75 (p < 0.02) and to a lesser extent p55 (not significant, ns) TNF receptor (TNF-R) expression. Similar increases in surface TNF-R (p75 p < 0.02, p55 ns) were observed on the ‘group III’ BL cell lines compared with the ‘group I’ BL cell lines. Proliferation of an LCL and a ‘group III’ BL cell line in vitro was via an autocrine loop since inhibition of LT reduced proliferation. This proliferation could also be blocked in the presence of the antagonistic anti-p55 TNF-R antibody, H398, but not the antagonistic antibody anti-p75 TNF-R antibody UTR-1. Furthermore, proliferation could be induced with the p55 agonistic antibody, HTR-9. In contrast to these observations with p55 TNF-R antibodies, two out of six of the ‘group III’ BL lines (Jijoye and Oba) only expressed the p75 TNF-R and proliferation of these cells could only be blocked by the antagonistic anti-p75 TNF-R antibody UTR-1. These data suggest that LT is an autocrine growth factor for lymphoblastoid cells, and BL cell lines which display an LCL phenotype. Furthermore, although both TNF-R are increased on the surface of these cells, this autocrine growth signal is mediated principally through binding to the p55 TNF-R.