Lewis rats were rendered tolerant to ACI heart allografts using a regimen of posttransplant total lymphoid irradiation (TLI), rabbit antithymocyte or antilymphocyte globulin (RATG or RALG), and a single donor blood transfusion. All three treatment modalities were required to induce tolerance. The mechanism of the maintenance of tolerance was investigated by comparing the secretion of cytokines in the MLR, and the expression of cytokine mRNA in the allografts of tolerant and nontolerant Lewis rats. Although, the 3H-thymidine incorporation and secretion of IL-2 was frequently comparable in the MLR from tolerant and nontolerant rats, the secretion of IFN-gamma was markedly reduced in the tolerant rats. This was reflected in a markedly reduced frequency of cells expressing IFN-gamma mRNA in the allografts of tolerant as compared with nontolerant hosts. The frequency of cells expressing IL-2 and IL-10 mRNA was also reduced, but no significant difference was observed for cells with IL-4 mRNA. Spleen cells from nontolerant rats rapidly rejected ACI allografts in irradiated adoptive hosts, but spleen cells from tolerant rats did not. Evaluation of the cytokine mRNA expression at early and late time points in the allografts of adoptive hosts showed a pattern similar to that of the primary hosts. Thus, the tolerant state was associated with a maintenance or elevation of IL-4 expression and a marked reduction of IFN-gamma expression. Previous reports have shown that TLI alone induced this shift in the early recovery phase after irradiation.