The functional role of human tumor necrosis factor receptor (TNFR) p75 was studied by the use of TNFR p75-specific agonistic antibodies. Human SW480T adenocarcinoma cells, stably transfected with a reporter construct containing beta-galactosidase under the control of human cytomegalovirus immediate early enhancer, were stimulated with anti-TNFR p75 polyclonal antiserum or monoclonal antibodies followed by measurement of beta-galactosidase activity and analysis by electrophoretic mobility shift assays. It was found that cross-linking of TNFR p75 led to strong induction of the human cytomegalovirus enhancer as well as activation of nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kappa B). Stimulation of TNFR p75 also mediated activation of NF-kappa B in human KYM-1 rhabdomyosarcoma cells but not in other cell types such as U937 and HL-60 monocytic cells or in Eahy 926 endothelial cells. NF-kappa B activation induced by TNFR p75 was delayed approximately 15 min compared with NF-kappa B activation induced by TNFR p55, indicating that the two TNFRs activate NF-kappa B through different signaling pathways. The data presented in this study identify intracellular responses mediated by TNFR p75 which have not been reported previously and suggest that TNFR p75-induced activation of NF-kappa B is strictly cell type-specific.