The dietary lectin phytohaemagglutinin (PHA) induces gut growth and precocious maturation in suckling rats after mucosal binding. The present study investigated the dose range in which PHA provokes gut maturation and if it coincided with immune activation. Suckling rats, aged 14 d, were orogastrically fed a single increasing dose of PHA: 0 (control), 2, 10, 50 or 250 microg/g body weight (BW) in saline. The effect on gut, lymphoid organs and appearance of CD3+ (T-lymphocyte) and CD19+ (B-lymphocyte) cells in the small-intestinal mucosa was studied at 12 h (acute) and 3 d (late phase) after treatment. The low PHA doses (2 and 10 microg/g BW) induced intestinal hyperplasia without mucosal disarrangement but did not provoke gut maturation. Only the high PHA doses (50 and 250 microg/g BW) temporarily disturbed the intestinal mucosa with villi shortening and decrease in disaccharidase activities, and later after 3 d provoked precocious maturation, resulting in an increase in maltase and sucrase activities and decrease in lactase activity and disappearance of the fetal vacuolated enterocytes in the distal small intestine. Exposure to the high, but not to the low, PHA doses increased the number of mucosal CD19+ and CD3+ cells in the small intestine after 12 h, a finding also observed in untreated weaned rats aged 21-28 d. In conclusion, there was a dose-related effect of PHA on gastrointestinal growth and precocious maturation that coincided with a rapid expansion of mucosal B- and T-lymphocytes, indicating a possible involvement of the immune system in this process.