Th3 CD4+ regulatory cells were identified during the course of investigating mechanisms associated with oral tolerance. Different mechanisms of tolerance are induced following oral antigen administration, including active suppression, clonal anergy and deletion. Low doses favor active suppression whereas high doses favor anergy/deletion. Th3 regulatory cells form a unique T-cell subset which primarily secretes transforming growth factor (TGF)-beta, provides help for IgA and has suppressive properties for both Th1 and Th2 cells. Th3 type cells are distinct from the Th2 cells, as CD4+ TGF-beta-secreting cells with suppressive properties have been generated from interleukin (IL)-4-deficient animals. In vitro differentiation of Th3 cells from Th precursors from T-cell antigen receptor (TCR) transgenic mice is enhanced by culture with TGF-beta, IL-4, IL-10, and anti-IL-12. Th3 CD4+ myelin basic protein regulatory clones are structurally identical to Th1 encephalitogenic clones in TCR usage, MHC restriction and epitope recognition, but produce TGF-beta with various amounts of IL-4 and IL-10. Because Th3 regulatory cells are triggered in an antigen-specific fashion but suppress in an antigen-non-specific fashion, they mediate "bystander suppression" when they encounter the fed autoantigen at the target organ. In vivo induction of Th3 cells and low dose oral tolerance is enhanced by oral administration of IL-4. Anti-CD86 but not anti-CD80 blocks the induction of Th3 cells associated with low dose oral tolerance. Th3 regulatory cells have been described in other systems (e.g. recovery from experimental allergic encephalomyelitis) but may be preferentially generated following oral antigen administration due to the gut immunologic milieu that is rich in TGF-beta and has a unique class of dendritic cells. CD4+CD25+ regulatory T-cell function also appears related to TGF-beta.