The p55 and p75 tumor necrosis factor receptors are known to mediate their effects on cells through distinct signaling pathways. Under certain circumstances, the two classes of TNF receptors cooperate with each another to produce enhanced cellular responses. The only molecular mechanism proposed thus far to explain this effect is the process of 'ligand passing,' whereby TNF is concentrated at cell surfaces by binding to p75 and then following dissociation from this receptor class binds with high efficiency to p55. Using the in vivo model of TNF-induced TNF receptor shedding we have uncovered a novel ligand-dependent interaction of the two TNF receptors that occurs upon exposure of cells to TNF. Using TNF receptor-specific monoclonal antibodies that bind TNF receptors in the presence or absence of ligand, we report that TNF induces the formation of heterocomplexes consisting of both p55 and p75 TNF receptors. Whereas immunoprecipitates from untreated or human TNF-treated cells formed with either p55 or p75 TNF receptor-specific monoclonal antibodies contained only the relevant TNF receptor class, anti- p55 or anti-p75 precipitated both receptor types from murine TNF-treated cells. Ligand-induced complex formation was transient, occurred at physiologically relevant concentrations of TNF, and occurred with receptors lacking intracellular domains or that contained irrelevant transmembrane domains. Formation of TNF receptor heterocomplexes may therefore 1) define a novel molecular mechanism of ligand passing and/or 2) contribute to cooperative TNF receptor signaling via the juxtaposition of the intracellular domains of the two receptor classes and the signaling proteins that they recruit.