We have studied transferrin receptor expression in MRC5 human fibroblasts in response to tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF, cachectin) or interleukin 1-alpha (IL-1). Treatment of exponentially growing MRC5 cells with these cytokines led to a 3-4-fold increase in transferrin receptor mRNA and a coordinate increase in transferrin receptor protein by 24 h. Under these conditions, stimulation of [3H]thymidine incorporation was minimal, suggesting that the induction of transferrin receptor by TNF and IL-1 is mediated by a growth-independent regulatory mechanism. A study of the time course of this response showed that cytokine-mediated increases in transferrin receptor mRNA and protein proceeded after a lag of 12-24 h. A simultaneous analysis of the effects of TNF and IL-1 on ferritin in MRC5 cells was also performed. Ferritin L mRNA levels were unchanged. However, induction of ferritin H mRNA was seen within 4 h, preceding the induction of the transferrin receptor. The synthesis of ferritin H (but not ferritin L) protein peaked at 8 h after TNF or IL-1 treatment, followed by a rapid decrease in both ferritin H and L protein synthesis. As ferritin H synthesis declined, levels of transferrin receptor protein increased, reaching a maximum by 24 h. These results suggest that the cytokine-dependent induction of ferritin H and subsequent increase in the transferrin receptor are related and possibly interdependent events. This study demonstrates that the complex role of TNF and IL-1 in iron homeostasis includes modulation of the transferrin receptor.