Previous studies in vivo have shown that IL-10 infusion can prevent lethal endotoxic shock. Mice deficient in the production of IL-10 (IL10T) were used to investigate the regulatory role of IL-10 in the responses to LPS in three experimental systems. In a model of acute endotoxic shock, it was found that the lethal dose of LPS for IL10T mice was 20-fold lower than that for wild type (wt) mice suggesting that endogenous IL-10 determines the amount of LPS which can be tolerated without death. The high mortality rate of IL10T mice challenged with modest doses of LPS was correlated to the uncontrolled production of TNF as treatment with anti- TNF antibody (Ab) resulted in 70% survival. Additional studies suggested that IL-10 mediates protection by controlling the early effectors of endotoxic shock (e.g., TNF alpha) and that it is incapable of directly antagonizing the production and/or actions of late appearing effector molecules (e.g., nitric oxide). We also found that IL10T mice were extremely vulnerable to a generalized Shwartzman reaction where prior exposure to a small amount of LPS primes the host for a lethal response to a subsequent sublethal dose. The priming LPS dose for IL10T mice was 100-fold lower than that required to prime wt mice implying that IL-10 is important for suppressing sensitization. In agreement with this assumption, IL-10 infusion was found to block the sensitization step. Interestingly, IL-10 was not the main effector of endotoxin tolerance as IL10T mice could be tolerized to LPS. Furthermore, IL-10 infusion could not substitute for the desensitizing dose of LPS. These results show that IL-10 is a critical component of the host's natural defense against the development of pathologic responses to LPS although it is not responsible for LPS-induced tolerance.