Previously, we demonstrated that rat macrophages express CD8 and that Ab to CD8 stimulates NO production. We confirm that CD8 is expressed by rat macrophages and extend understanding of its functional significance. Activation of CD8 alpha (OX8 Ab) on alveolar macrophages stimulated mRNA expression for TNF and IL-1 beta and promoted TNF and IL-1 beta secretion. Similarly, OX8 Ab (CD8 alpha) stimulated NR8383 cells to secrete TNF, IL-1 beta, and NO. Activation of CD8 beta (Ab 341) on alveolar macrophages increased mRNA expression for TNF and IL-1 beta and stimulated secretion of TNF, but not IL-1 beta. Interestingly, anti-CD8 Abs did not stimulate IFN-gamma or PGE2 production, or phagocytosis by macrophages. OX8 (CD8 alpha)-induced TNF and IL-1 beta production by macrophages was blocked by inhibitors of protein tyrosine kinase(s), PP1, and genistein, but not by phosphatidylinositol-3 kinase inhibitor, wortmannin. Moreover, OX8 stimulated protein tyrosine kinase activity in NR8383 cells. Further analysis of kinase dependence using antisense to Syk kinase demonstrated that TNF, but not IL-1 beta, stimulation by CD8 alpha is Syk dependent. By contrast, protein kinase C inhibitor Ro 31-8220 had no effect on OX8-induced TNF production, whereas OX8-induced IL-1 beta production was blocked by Ro 31-8220. Thus, there are distinct signaling mechanisms involved in CD8 alpha (OX8)-induced TNF and IL-1 beta production. In summary, macrophages express CD8 molecules that, when activated, stimulate TNF and IL-1 beta expression, probably through mechanisms that include activation of Src and Syk kinases and protein kinase C. These findings identify a previously unknown pathway of macrophage activation likely to be involved in host defense and inflammation.