The multifunctional cytokine tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF alpha) stimulates osteoclastic resorption. It is not known which steps in osteoclast formation are affected by TNF alpha. We have investigated the effects of recombinant human TNF alpha (rhTNF alpha) on osteoclast development and osteoclastic resorption in two different in vitro resorption systems which are each characterized by a different stage of development of the osteoclast. The effects were further compared to those of bovine PTH-(1-84). rhTNF alpha at concentrations between 0.01-50 ng/ml (3 x 10(-13) to 1.5 x 10(-9) M) did not alter the activity of mature osteoclasts, measured as 45Ca release in fetal mouse radii. In the osteoclast precursor-dependent system (fetal mouse metacarpals) rhTNF alpha had a biphasic effect. It stimulated resorption dose-dependently from 0.01 ng/ml onward, with a maximal response at 0.5 ng/ml. At concentrations above 10 ng/ml rhTNF alpha, resorption was inhibited. In experiments in which irradiation was used to block replication, it was found that TNF alpha stimulates the proliferation of osteoclast progenitors at both low and high concentrations. As a result, at relatively low concentrations, more osteoclasts were formed in the calcified matrix, coinciding with an increased release of 45Ca. However, at relatively high concentrations, the increase in osteoclast progenitors did not lead to increased resorption, since the putative osteoclast progenitors were arrested in the periosteum. In comparison, bovine PTH-(1-84) stimulated resorption independent of proliferation by enhancing the differentiation of postmitotic osteoclast precursors and activating mature osteoclasts. In conclusion, the effects of TNF alpha on osteoclastic resorption are dependent on the stage of osteoclast development and the concentrations applied.