The early mechanisms by which DNA-dependent immunization occurs remain poorly understood. We determined whether intradermal injection of a cytomegalovirus (CMV) promoter-driven plasmid encoding hen egg lysozyme (pCMV:HEL) induced sensitization against the encoded protein, and whether cutaneous dendritic cells (DC) were involved in this sensitization. Both humoral and cellular responses to HEL were observed. DC that migrated from skin explant culture 3 days after injection of pCMV:HEL DNA contained mRNA encoding HEL. They induced a 3.5-7-fold increase in [3H]thymidine incorporation by HEL protein-primed CD4+ T cells compared to that induced by DC from mice injected with control plasmid. DC emigrating from skin explants recovered from pCMV:HEL injected mice also sensitized naive mice after adoptive transfer and induced the generation of CTL. Thus following DNA delivery within the dermis, DC can induce primary and secondary immune responses.