The vitamin A metabolite, retinoic acid (RA), affects Th1 and Th2 development. The effect is partly exerted through the modulation of antigen-presenting cell functions, but it remains unclear whether RA directly exerts its effect on T cells to influence Th1/Th2 development. To clarify this problem, we used two experimental systems with isolated T cells in vitro. In one system, isolated CD4+CD8+ thymocytes differentiated into Th1 and Th2 by two transient stimulations with defined combinations of ionomycin and phorbol myristate acetate followed by treatment with IL-2 and IL-4 and/or IL-12. In the second system, functional differentiation was induced in purified naive CD4 T cells from DO-11.10 TCR-transgenic and RAG-2-deficient mice with cytokines and antibodies to CD3 and CD28. In both systems, all-trans-RA at > or = 1 nM concentrations suppressed Th1 development, but enhanced Th2 development. 9-cis-RA elicited similar effects. The optimal enhancement of Th2 development in the second system, however, was achieved with a delayed addition of RA. The presence of RA during the initial stimulation period often suppressed Th2 development. The RA receptor (RAR) antagonists, LE540 and LE135, but not the retinoic X receptor (RXR) antagonist, PA452, inhibited the effect of RA on Th1/Th2 development. Accordingly, the RAR agonists, Am80 and Tp80, but not the RXR agonists, HX600 and TZ335, mimicked the effect of RA. The RXR agonists enhanced the effect of the RAR agonists only slightly, if at all. These results indicate that, via RAR, RA directly suppresses Th1 development and directly enhances Th2 development with its timely addition.