These studies provide the first evidence that adoptive transfer of syngeneic mouse (BALB/c) lymphocytes treated with low levels of mouse interferon (IFN)-alpha/beta can result in sufficient protection to protect mice from Semliki Forest virus (SFV) infection. Specifically, intraperitoneal inoculation of noncytotoxic lymphocytes treated exogenously with IFN (3 to 50 U/ml), washed exhaustively, and mixed with antibody to IFN-alpha/beta to neutralize any residual or early produced IFN, resulted (after repeated studies) in a 35% to 40% reduction in mortality of mice challenged with SFV (P less than or equal to .01), while inoculation of control lymphocytes had no effect. Direct administration of relatively high levels of IFN-alpha/beta (2,000 U/d) only moderately reduced the mortality (by 20%) in mice. Passive transfer of IFN-treated BALB/c mouse embryo cells also did not protect. The protection could not be attributed to carryover of IFN by the lymphocytes, endogenous IFN induction, enhanced cytotoxicity of endogenous splenocytes or peritoneal leukocytes, or early appearance of antiviral neutralizing antibody. Thus, the most likely cause of the observed protection is consistent with a unique mechanism that can be activated by the IFN-treated lymphocytes.