The potency of genetic immunization observed in the mouse has demonstrated the utility of DNA vaccines to induce cell-mediated and humoral immune responses. However, it has been relatively difficult to generate comparable responses in non-rodent species. The use of molecular adjuvants may increase the magnitude of these suboptimal responses. In this study, we demonstrate that the co-administration of plasmid-encoded GM-CSF and CD80/CD86 with a novel ESAT-6:CFP10 DNA vaccine against bovine tuberculosis enhances antigen-specific cell-mediated immune responses. ESAT-6:CFP10+GM-CSF+CD80/CD86 DNA vaccinated animals exhibited significant (p<0.01) antigen-specific proliferative responses compared to other DNA vaccinates. Increased expression (p< or =0.05) of CD25 on PBMC from ESAT-6:CFP10+GM-CSF+CD80/CD86 DNA vaccinates was associated with increased proliferation, as compared to control DNA vaccinates. Significant (p<0.05) numbers of ESAT-6:CFP10-specific IFN-gamma producing cells were evident from all ESAT-6:CFP10 DNA vaccinated animals compared to control DNA vaccinates. However, the greatest increase in IFN-gamma producing cells was from animals vaccinated with ESAT-6:CFP10+GM-CSF+CD80/CD86 DNA. In a low-dose aerosol challenge trial, calves vaccinated as neonates with Mycobacterium bovis BCG and ESAT-6:CFP10+GM-CSF+CD80/CD86 DNA exhibited decreased lesion severity in the lung and lung-associated lymph nodes following viruluent M. bovis challenge compared to other vaccinated animals or non-vaccinated controls. These data suggest that a combined vaccine regimen of M. bovis BCG and a candidate ESAT-6:CFP10 DNA vaccine may offer greater protection against tuberculosis in cattle than vaccination with BCG alone.