The mechanism of human peripheral blood monocyte-mediated cytotoxicity was investigated using the HT-29 human colon adenocarcinoma line, A673 human rhabdomyosarcoma line, and A375 human melanoma line as target cells. Pretreatment of these target cells with 100 U/ml of recombinant human interferon (IFN)-gamma for 48 hr increased their susceptibility to monocyte killing. Increased susceptibility to the lytic action was particularly pronounced at low effector/target cell ratios. Unlike IFN-gamma human IFN-alpha did not potentiate monocyte cytotoxicity, and pretreatment of HT-29 with IFN-alpha also had virtually no effect on their susceptibility to monocyte killing. However, IFN-gamma appeared to prime either monocytes or target cells to become responsive to IFN-alpha. Our data suggest that IFN-gamma can promote the killing of tumor cells by monocytes through two separate actions, one on the monocyte and one on the target cell.