Cytokines may play an important role in the regulation of host defense against local bacterial infections. We have evaluated the local production of cytokines in a BALB/c mouse model of Escherichia coli pyelonephritis. Kidneys, draining lymph nodes, and spleens, were harvested at specific time intervals after bladder inoculation with E. coli corresponding to the stages of renal infection, infiltration, and bacterial clearance seen in this model. The presence of messenger RNA for specific cytokines (interleukins 1 through 6, chemotactic factors, granulocyte and granulocyte macrophage-colony stimulating factor (GM-CSF), tumor necrosis factor (TNF alpha) and beta, IFN gamma, transforming growth factor (TGF beta), and cytokine synthesis inhibitory factor (CSIF)/IL-10) was determined by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification of reverse transcribed RNA. We have demonstrated mRNA encoding IL-1, IL-6, G-CSF, GM-CSF, TNF alpha, H400 (a protein homologous to a family of chemotactic factors and identical to MIP-1 beta), and CSIF/IL-10 in the kidney at 12 h and 1, 2, and 3 d after bacterial challenge. No signal was seen in normal animals or in mice after 5 d. This pattern of cytokine expression was observed only in renal tissues suggesting a localized response. IL-6 was present in the urine at 4 h with rapid resolution to baseline levels by 24 to 48 h. In contrast, IL-6 was not usually detectable in the serum. TNF alpha was not detectable in the serum or urine during the course of the infection. By immunohistochemical staining of kidney sections we have shown that IL-6 is produced predominantly by mesangial cells rather than by the inflammatory infiltrate. This study provides additional evidence utilizing novel techniques that specific cytokines are produced locally in response to bacterial infections. The time course of production demonstrated in this model supports the important role of cytokines in natural host resistance to local infection.