Allergic diseases are reported to be caused by a skew in the balance between T helper type 1 and 2 cells. Because some lactic acid bacteria have been shown to stimulate IL-12 (p70) production, which in turn shifts the balance between the T helper type 1 and 2 cell response from the latter to the former, they have the potential to either prevent or ameliorate disease conditions or both. They have therefore been extensively studied in the recent past for their probiotic activities. Nevertheless, much less information is available concerning the microbial factors that determine the strain-dependent ability to affect the production of cytokines. The objectives of our study were first to select potentially probiotic lactobacilli that strongly stimulate cytokine production in vitro, and then to determine whether the selected Lactobacillus strains could suppress antigen-specific IgE production in vivo by using allergic model animals. Finally, our investigation was extended to analyze which bacterial components were responsible for the observed biological activity. Twenty strains of heat-killed lactobacilli isolated from humans were screened for their stimulatory activity for the production of IL-12 (p70) by murine splenocytes in vitro. The results showed that some strains of Lactobacillus plantarum and Lactobacillus gasseri had a higher stimulatory activity for IL-12 (p70) production than the other lactobacilli tested; however, this effect was strain dependent rather than species dependent. Oral administration of the heat-killed strains that showed higher stimulatory activity for IL-12 (p70) production tended to reduce the serum antigen-specific IgE levels in ovalbumin-sensitized BALB/c mice compared with the controls. Among the lactobacilli tested, L. gasseri OLL2809 showed the highest activity in reducing the level of antigen-specific IgE. Furthermore, the stimulatory activity for IL-12 (p70) production was found to be reduced after treating the lactobacilli with N-acetyl-muramidase and to be positively correlated with the amount of peptidoglycan in the cells. The present data suggest that L. gasseri OLL2809 is a good candidate for potential probiotics in terms of either the prevention or amelioration of allergic diseases or both. In addition, the strain-dependent stimulatory activity for IL-12 (p70) production was found to be due, at least in part, to the amount of peptidoglycan present in the cells.