Although studies indicate that polymicrobial sepsis produces marked depression in lymphocyte functions, it remains unclear whether this dysfunction is due to the chronic exposure of immune cells to endotoxin (ETX; a product of the gram-negative bacterial cell wall) at levels typically encountered in the septic state. The aim of this study, therefore, was to determine whether the changes in lymphokine release seen during polymicrobial sepsis are comparable to those observed with chronic ETX infusion. To assess this, splenocytes were harvested from C3H/HeN mice (ETX-sensitive) at 1 or 24 hr following cecal ligation and puncture (CLP; to induce polymicrobial sepsis), Sham CLP (Sham), or laparotomy followed by peritoneal implantation of a mini-osmotic pump which delivered either saline vehicle (Sal-pump) or ETX (ETX-pump; 0.025 μg lipopolysaccharide/25 g body wt/24 hr). Splenocytes were then stimulated with concanavalin A (2.5 μg/ml/48 hr) and their capacity to release interleukin (IL)-2, interferon (IFN)-γ, IL-4, and IL-10 was determined by bioassay or ELISA. The results indicated that there were no changes in lymphokine release capacity at 1 hr after CLP or ETX-pump implantation. However, prolonged sepsis (i.e., at 24 hr) caused a marked suppression of IL-2 and IFN-γ release (immune-enhancing lymphokines characteristic of Th1-cells), while enhancing the release of immunosuppressive Th2-cell products IL-4 and IL-10. Chronic exposure to ETX at a level comparable to that seen in CLP caused no depression in lymphokine (IL-2/IFN-γ) release. This implies that a bacterial component other than ETX mediates the differential alterations observed in lymphokine release during prolonged polymicrobial sepsis. © 1994 Academic Press, Inc.