Interferons (IFN) are antiviral proteins that may be important in mediating cellular defenses against Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection. However, the means by which IFN-alpha, -beta and -gamma modify EBV infectivity are not clear. We have evaluated the effects of purified recombinant preparations of all three classes of IFN on EBV-induced B lymphocyte proliferation and Ig secretion. When added early after EBV infection, all three recombinant IFN reduced B cell outgrowth and Ig secretion. IFN-gamma exerted a 7-10-fold more potent antiviral effect than IFN-alpha or -beta. All three types of IFN act directly on B cells. Monocytes and natural killer cells are not necessary for the anti-EBV activity. Of the three recombinant IFN, only IFN-gamma reduced EBV-induced proliferation and Ig secretion when added 3-4 days after virus infection; IFN-alpha/beta were only effective up to 24 h. B lymphoblastoid lines already transformed by EBV are insensitive to the anti-proliferative actions of all three types of IFN. On the basis of these findings, we propose three phases of regulation during EBV infection. In the early phase, EBV-infected cells can be regulated by all IFN. Subsequently, there is an intermediate period where only IFN-gamma is capable of directly affecting EBV-induced B cell responses. In the third phase, B lymphocytes become insensitive to direct actions of all IFN and are now subject to regulation only by cytotoxic cells.