With about 350 million virus carriers, hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection remains a major health problem. HBV is a noncytopathic virus causing persistent infection, but it is still unknown whether host recognition of HBV may activate an innate immune response. We describe that upon infection of primary human liver cells, HBV is recognized by nonparenchymal cells of the liver, mainly by liver macrophages (Kupffer cells), although they are not infected. Within 3 hours, this recognition leads to the activation of nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kappaB) and subsequently to the release of interleukin-6 (IL-6) and other proinflammatory cytokines (IL-8, TNF-alpha, IL-1beta), but does not induce an interferon response. The activation of proinflammatory cytokines, however, is transient, and even inhibits responsiveness toward a subsequent challenge. IL-6 released by Kupffer cells after activation of NF-kappaB controls HBV gene expression and replication in hepatocytes at the level of transcription shortly after infection. Upon binding to its receptor complex, IL-6 activates the mitogen-activated protein kinases exogenous signal-regulated kinase 1/2, and c-jun N-terminal kinase, which inhibit expression of hepatocyte nuclear factor (HNF) 1alpha and HNF 4alpha, two transcription factors essential for HBV gene expression and replication. CONCLUSION: Our results demonstrate recognition of HBV patterns by nonparenchymal liver cells, which results in IL-6-mediated control of HBV infection at the transcriptional level. Thus, IL-6 ensures early control of the virus, limiting activation of the adaptive immune response and preventing death of the HBV-infected hepatocyte. This pattern recognition may be essential for a virus, which infects a new host with only a few virions. Our data also indicate that therapeutic neutralization of IL-6 for treatment of certain diseases may represent a risk if the patient is HBV-infected.