A new procedure for rapid isolation of dendritic cells (DC) was devised, involving collagenase digestion of tissues, dissociation of lymphoid-DC complexes, selection of light-density cells, then depletion of lymphocytes and other non-DC by treatment with a mixture of lineage-specific monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) and removal with anti-immunoglobulin-coupled magnetic beads. This enriched population (approximately 80% DC) was further purified when required by fluorescence-activated cell sorting for cells expressing high levels of class II major histocompatibility complex (MHC). The isolated DC were characterized by immunofluorescent staining using a panel of 30 mAbs. Thymic DC were surface positive for a number of markers characteristic of T cells, but they were distinct from T-lineage cells in expressing high levels of class II MHC, in lacking expression of the T cell receptor (TCR)-CD3 complex, and having TCR beta and gamma genes in germline state. Splenic DC shared many markers with thymic DC, but were negative for most T cell markers, with the exception of CD8. A substantial proportion of DC from both thymus and spleen expressed CD8 at high levels, comparable with that on T cells. This appeared to be authentic CD8, and was produced by the DC themselves, since they contained CD8 alpha mRNA. Thymic DC presented both the CD8 alpha and beta chains on the cell surface (Ly-2+3+), although the alpha chain was in excess; the splenic DC expressed only the CD8 alpha chain (Ly-2+3-). It is suggested that the expression of CD8 could endow certain antigen-presenting DC with a veto function.