Nitric oxide (NO) has been reported to inhibit osteoclastic bone resorption, yet potent stimulators of bone resorption, such as interleukin-1 (IL-1) and tumor necrosis factor (TNF), are known to stimulate NO production. This paradox prompted us to reinvestigate the relationship between NO production and bone resorption in mouse calvarial organ cultures. Control cultures and those stimulated with calciotropic hormones and individual cytokines produced little NO, and under these conditions the NO synthase inhibitor, L-NG-monomethyl arginine (LMMA), had no significant effect on bone resorption. Cytokine combinations were much more potent stimulators of NO production than individual cytokines. Dramatic stimulation of NO production and inhibition of bone resorption resulted when gamma-interferon (IFN) was combined with IL-1 or TNF and these effects were reversed by LMMA. IFN had no effect on bone resorption and little effect on NO production when used alone or in combination with calciotropic hormones, however, suggesting that IFN selectively inhibits cytokine-induced bone resorption by generating large amounts of NO. IL-1 and TNF acted together to stimulate NO production but to a lesser degree than when combined with IFN. LMMA inhibited bone resorption induced by IL-1 and TNF, suggesting that lower concentrations of NO stimulate bone resorption. Experiments with the pharmacological NO donor S-nitroso-acetyl-penicillamine (SNAP) supported this view in showing generalized suppression of bone resorption at high SNAP concentrations, but potentiation of IL-1 induced bone resorption at lower SNAP concentrations. We conclude that cytokines are potent inducers of NO in bone and that cytokine-induced NO production has biphasic effects on bone resorption. While the mechanisms of action of NO in bone will require further research, these data raise the possibility that local production of NO may be involved in the regulation of bone remodeling, especially in diseases of cytokine activation such as rheumatoid arthritis.