The aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that the gut is capable of becoming a cytokine-generating organ following either a lethal or nonlethal inflammatory insult. Adult male rats were given an intraperitoneal challenge with saline, or with a nonlethal (.1 mg/g) or LD50 (.5 mg/g) dose of zymosan. Mesenteric lymph nodes, efferent mesenteric lymph, liver, spleen, and blood (portal and systemic) were obtained at 2,4,6, 8, or 10 h post challenge. Organs, lymph, and blood were tested for bacterial translocation (BT); blood and lymph were assayed for tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and IL-6. After .1 mg/g zymosan, BT was limited to the mesenteric lymph node complex only; .5 mg/g zymosan promoted BT to blood, mesenteric lymph, and organs (p < .05 vs. control or .1 mg/g zymosan). The magnitude of portal bacteremia was greater than systemic bacteremia (p < .003). Serum TNF peaked at 2 h (p < .05 vs. control), and serum IL-6 peaked at 4-6 h (p < .05 vs. control) post zymosan challenge. Portal and systemic bioactivity was similar for either cytokine, and serum bioactivity did not correlate with zymosan dose. TNF bioactivity was increased in the mesenteric lymph at 2 h post challenge with .5 mg/g zymosan only (p < .05 vs. control or .1 mg/g zymosan). IL-6 bioactivity was increased in the mesenteric lymph at 4 through 10 h post zymosan challenge (p < .05 vs. control), but was similar with either dosage of zymosan. In conclusion, the gut may be capable of producing cytokines in response to an inflammatory stimulus, even . in the absence of portal or systemic spread of bacteria. The magnitude of the cytokine response does not correlate with the magnitude of bacterial translocation. © 1995 The Shock Society.