This study addressed the question of whether the mucosal adjuvant property of cholera toxin (CT) and the structurally closely related Escherichia coli heat-labile toxin (LT) requires the enterotoxic and adenylate cyclase/cAMP activating property of these molecules. Therefore, we investigated the cytotoxic and adjuvant abilities of the enterotoxins and compared the results with those obtained with the non-toxic CT and LT derivatives; recombinant CTB (rCTB) and a mutated LT (mLT), which had a single amino acid substitution in position 112 (Glu----Lys) of the A subunit. Detailed functional studies revealed that, in contrast to the enterotoxins, both rCTB and mLT lacked ADP-ribosylating and cAMP-stimulating abilities. However, similar membrane ganglioside GM1-receptor binding ability of all the putative adjuvants was demonstrated. When the probe antigen, keyhole limpet hemocyanin (KLH), was given perorally together with CT or LT strong gut mucosal anti-KLH immune responses were stimulated, whereas no or very low anti-KLH responses were seen in the groups which received antigen admixed with rCTB or the mLT. Moreover, the specific serum antibody responses to the various immunization protocols closely paralleled the local anti-KLH response in the gut. From these results it appears that the adjuvant mechanism of LT, and probably also of CT, is linked to the ability to ADP-ribosylate and to stimulate cAMP formation. However, this study does not unequivocally rule out other possibilities such as interactions by the A1 fragment of CT or LT with other G-proteins than Gs alpha or events that parallel or precede the effects on the adenylate cyclase/cAMP system. Thus, the levels of ADP-ribosylation and cAMP-induction that are required and the key event or target cell that is responsible for the adjuvant effect of CT and LT remain to be elucidated. Studies are underway to address these issues.