Morphological and kinetic studies of immune complex (IC) trapping by follicular dendritic cells (FDC) show marked age-related deficits. We postulated that a reduction in trapped IC, which generate CD21 ligands (L) on FDC, would lead to inadequate FDC-Ag-B cell interactions resulting in depressed Ab responses. To determine whether the age-related defect was the result of the aging of FDC or changes in the in vivo microenvironment of FDC (i.e. aging B and T cells), FDC-B cell-T cell-Ag interactions were studied in in vitro germinal centers where various combinations of old and young cells could be compared. Since we reasoned that reduced IC on FDC would generate less CD21L needed to stimulate the B cell co-receptor via CD21, we also examined the role of complement (C'). The hypothesis that aging reduces the accessory activity of FDC was tested with increasing numbers of FDC from young (12 weeks) or old (20 months) mice in the presence of young (12 weeks) B and T lymphocytes. The Ag-specific stimulatory activity of FDC was studied using the OVA-specific Ab response which was reduced by 40-50% in the presence of old FDC. Antigen-independent FDC-mediated co-stimulation was studied by using LPS to stimulate B-lymphocytes to produce immunoglobulin (Ig). In the presence of old FDC, co-stimulation was decreased by 70-80% in the LPS system. Incubation of aged FDC with IC and C' to provide FDC with CD21L restored co-stimulatory activity to near normal levels. In marked contrast, no defects in old B and T cells were apparent. The data suggest that the Ag handling capacity and co-stimulatory activity of old FDC become defective with aging and this appears to be a consequence of reduced trapping and presentation FDC-Ag and CD21L to B cells.