Human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) genetic determinants of endothelial-cell tropism and virus transfer to leukocytes (both polymorphonuclear and monocyte) have been recently identified in the UL131-128 genes. Here it is documented that the same genetic determinants of HCMV are responsible for monocyte-derived dendritic-cell (DC) tropism, i.e. all endotheliotropic and leukotropic strains of HCMV are also DC-tropic (or dendrotropic). In fact, all recent clinical HCMV isolates and deletion mutants sparing the UL131-128 locus as well as the endotheliotropic revertants AD169 and Towne were able to productively infect DC following co-culture with infected endothelial cells. On the contrary, the same clinical isolates extensively propagated in human fibroblasts, the UL131-128 deletion mutants and the reference laboratory strains were not. Peak extracellular virus titres in DC were reached 4-7 days post-infection (p.i.). Viral proteins pp65 and p72 were detected 1-3 h p.i., involving the great majority of DC 24 h p.i., while gB was abundantly detected 96 h p.i., when a cytopathic effect first appeared. Infection of DC with cell-free virus released into the medium could only be achieved with HCMV strains extensively adapted to growth in endothelial cells, reaching the peak titres 10 days p.i. DC infected for 24 h with cell-free virus and incubated for 16 h with autologous peripheral blood mononuclear cells were found to act as a potent stimulator of both HCMV-specific CD4+- and CD8+-mediated immune responses, as determined by cytokine flow cytometry. DC incubated with inactivated crude whole viral antigen preparations were only capable of eliciting a significant CD4+-mediated immune response.