The mechanisms leading to the severe lung damage seen in some sheep naturally infected with the visna-maedi virus, and to pulmonary lesions in other lentiviral diseases, appear to involve the recruitment of large numbers of uninfected inflammatory cells. Only a few alveolar macrophages from experimentally infected lambs express virus, but high levels of interleukin (IL)-8 mRNA are present in the macrophage population. In vitro infection with visna-maedi virus at low multiplicity of alveolar macrophages from uninfected sheep also strongly induced the expression of IL-8 mRNA and the accumulation of IL-8 in the extracellular medium. An initial peak of IL-8 mRNA expression at 3 or 6 h after infection was followed by a fall, then a more persistent expression lasting at least 48 h after infection. The early peak was accompanied by expression of mRNA for IL-1β, and a possible rise in tumor necrosis factor α (TNFα) mRNA, although this was frequently elevated in uninfected ovine alveolar macrophages. Interestingly, these events occurred identically in cells treated with non-infectious heat-treated virus, suggesting that interaction between viral components and cellular membrane receptors could suffice for both early and late IL-8 induction. The level of IL-8 mRNA induced by treatment with live or inactivated virus could be severely reduced by pretreatment of the macrophages with genistein but not with staurosporine, suggesting the involvement of a tyrosine-kinase signaling pathway. The early induction of IL-1β and possibly of TNFα may explain the occurrence of a later persistent expression of IL-8 mRNA through an autocrine mechanism.