Tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha is postulated to play a major role in the pathogenesis of obesity-linked insulin resistance, probably resulting from an interaction with insulin signaling pathways. This cross talk has now been investigated in human adipocytes at the level of phosphatidylinositol (PI) 3-kinase, and the TNF receptors (TNFRs) mediating these processes have been identified. Equilibrium binding studies using human adipocytes from mammary tissue indicated the presence of two populations of TNFR with apparent affinity constants of 13 pmol/l and 1.6 nmol/l, respectively. Interaction of TNF-alpha with insulin signaling was determined by quantification of insulin receptor substrate (IRS)-1-associated PI 3-kinase activity. Under control conditions, PI 3-kinase was activated about 10-fold in response to insulin (10[-7] mol/l, 5 min). Preincubation of adipocytes with 5 nmol/l TNF-alpha for 15 min resulted in a 60-70% reduction of insulin action, reaching a stable inhibition (40%) after longer incubation with the cytokine. The inhibitory action of TNF-alpha was dose-dependent, already detectable at 10 pmol/l, and was correlated to inhibition of tyrosine phosphorylation of IRS-1 with an unaltered autophosphorylation of the insulin receptor beta-subunit. The modulation of insulin signaling by TNF-alpha was found to be paralleled by a comparable inhibition of insulin-stimulated glucose transport. An agonistic TNFR1 antibody completely mimicked the inhibitory action of TNF-alpha on insulin signaling, whereas at 100 pmol/l TNF-alpha, a nonagonistic p80 TNFR antibody, was shown to ameliorate the inhibitory action of the cytokine. These findings indicate that in human adipocytes, low concentrations of TNF-alpha induce a rapid inhibition of insulin signaling at the level of PI 3-kinase. We suggest that under these conditions, the p80 TNFR is essential for initiating the intracellular cross talk that involves signaling by the p60 TNFR.