The ability of tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), a potent endogenous inflammatory agent, to promote malignant transformation of Syrian hamster embryo cells (SHE) initiated by a 0.5-Gy dose of alpha-particles was investigated. Opsonized zymosan particles, which were phagocytosed by a human macrophage-like cell line, triggered TNF-alpha production from U937 cells. This cell supernatant could significantly increase the transformation frequency (TF) of primary SHE cells previously irradiated by a 0.5-Gy dose of alpha-particles. The TF decreased significantly if monoclonal antibody against TNF-alpha was added to the supernatant. Similarly, recombinant human TNF-alpha (rhTNF-alpha) increased the TF of alpha-irradiated primary SHE cells to an even greater extent. Addition of TNF-alpha to subcultures of irradiated SHE cells permitted the continuous propagation of these primary cells. In contrast, both TNF-alpha-treated control and alpha-irradiated cells without subsequent TNF-alpha treatment senesced after 7-15 passages. Irradiated SHE cells treated continuously with TNF-alpha could be subcultured over 40 passages and produced fibrosarcomas upon inoculation into nude mice. Our results provide the first evidence that TNF-alpha released by activated macrophages may contribute to the process of malignant transformation initiated by low-dose alpha-particles.