The relationships between different dendritic cell (DC) populations are not clearly established. In particular, it is not known how DC generated in vitro relate to those identified in vivo. Here we have characterized rat bone marrow-derived DC (BMDC) and compared them with DC isolated from spleen (SDC) and pseudo-afferent lymph (LDC). BMDC express typical DC markers and are mostly OX41 positive and CD4 negative. In contrast to ex vivo DC, some BMDC express Fc receptors. FcR+ and FcR- BMDC express similar levels of major histocompatibility complex class II molecules (MHC) and are B7 positive, but some FcR- BMDC express high levels of B7. In contrast to freshly isolated or cultured ex vivo SDC and LDC, both BMDC subpopulations can express inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) and can secrete nitric oxide (NO) in amounts similar to those secreted by peritoneal macrophages. Despite expressing MHC class II and B7, FcR+ BMDC stimulate only a very weak MLR and inhibit stimulation by FcR- BMDC and ex vivo DC. Inhibition is only partially NO dependent. FcR+ BMDC are not macrophages, as judged by adherence and phagocytosis. Both subpopulations are able to present antigen to primed T cells in vitro and are able to prime naïve CD4 T cells in vivo. However, unlike SDC, BMDC are unable to stimulate cytotoxic T-lymphocyte (CTL) responses to a minor histocompatibility antigen. Thus, BMDC show marked differences to ex vivo DC and their relationship to those of in vivo DC populations, to date, is unclear.