In view of the presence of a large number of epithelial cells in the alveoli of the lung and their ability to produce various cytokines and chemokines, the possible role of alveolar epithelial cells in the innate immune response to tuberculosis was examined. The human alveolar epithelial cell line A549 was used as a model. The ability of A549 cells to induce nitric oxide (NO) in response to Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection was taken as an in vitro correlate of innate immunity. M. tuberculosis infection induced A549 cells to produce significant levels of NO and to express inducible nitric oxide synthase mRNA at 48 hr of infection. However, the amount of NO released at this point was not mycobactericidal. Cytokine stimulation (interferon-γ, tumour necrosis factor-α, interleukin-1β, alone or in combination) of the infected A549 cells induced a higher concentration of NO. The study of colony-forming units (CFU) as a measure of the mycobactericidal capacity of A549 cells revealed a reduction in CFU of M. tuberculosis by 39·29% (from 10·62 ± 0·48 – 6·392 ± 0·54) following cytokine stimulation of the infected cells. Interestingly γ-irradiated M. tuberculosis H37Rv could also induce higher than basal level of NO. Therefore we examined mycobacterial antigenic components for their possible role in NO production. We observed that A549 cells produced significantly higher amounts of NO at 48 hr when treated with mycobacterial whole cell lysates, cell wall or cell membrane preparations. The release of NO and the resultant mycobactericidal activity could be further enhanced by simultaneously conditioning the M. tuberculosis infected A549 cells with cytokine and mycobacterial components. These results suggest that alveolar epithelial cells respond to their microenvironment, which is constituted of various cytokines and macrophage-processed antigens and may contribute to the innate immune response to tuberculosis.