While bacterial DNA and cytosine-guanosine-dinucleotide-containing oligonucleotides (CpG ODN) are well described activators of murine immune cells, their effect on human cells is inconclusive. We investigated their properties on human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) and subsets thereof, such as purified monocytes, T and B cells. Here we demonstrate that bacterial DNA and CpG ODN induce proliferation of B cells, while other subpopulations, such as monocytes and T cells, did not proliferate. PBMC mixed cell cultures, as well as purified monocytes, produced interleukin-6 (IL-6), IL-12 and tumour necrosis factor-alpha upon stimulation with bacterial DNA; however, only IL-6 and IL-12 secretion became induced upon CpG ODN stimulation. We conclude that monocytes, but not B or T cells, represent the prime source of cytokines. Monocytes up-regulated expression of antigen-presenting, major histocompatibility complex class I and class II molecules in response to CpG DNA. In addition, both monocytes and B cells up-regulate costimulatory CD86 and CD40 molecules. The activation by CpG ODN depended on sequence motifs containing the core dinucleotide CG since destruction of the motif strongly reduced immunostimulatory potential.