Bacteria that colonize the intestinal mucosa elicit a strong mucosal immune response, whereas food antigens such as ovalbumin are very weakly immunogenic to the gut-associated lymphoid tissue. This may either be due to special physico-chemical properties of bacterial substances versus proteins from animals and plants, or to stimulating properties of the bacteria on, e.g., antigen presentation, rendering all substances contained within bacteria antigenic. To test these hypotheses, ovalbumin was expressed in wild-type Escherichia coli and germ-free female rats were colonized with this strain. The systemic and mucosal antibody response of these rats was compared with that of rats given large amounts of dietary ovalbumin. Biliary IgA antibodies, which reflect the local IgA antibody production in the intestine, were only found in the rats colonized with ovalbumin-synthesizing E. coli. IgG antibodies in the bile were also only seen in these rats. We conclude that mucosal immunogenicity depends on the context in which a protein is presented to the gut-associated lymphoid tissue, rather than to special antigenic characteristics of the protein in itself.