The mycobacteria are one of a number of genera making up the aerobic Actinomycetales. Their antigens demonstrable by immuno-precipitation methods can be divided into four groups. The group i antigens, common to all mycobacterial species, cross-react with their counterparts in animal cells, largely derived from mitochondria. Notable amongst these antigens are the heat-shock, or stress, proteins and possibly bacterial sugars. Tests of cell-mediated immunity show that people can be separated by their responsiveness in skin-test, or lymphocyte proliferation techniques, into four categories of responders. Category 1 individuals respond to all mycobacterial reagents through recognition of the group i antigens. Many chronic diseases are associated with a lack of cell-mediated responsiveness to the group i antigens, and have a raised antibody titre to them. This reflects a predominance of T helper 2 activity and reduced T helper 1 responsiveness as part of the pathogenesis of their diseases, which include chronic bacterial, viral and parasitic infections, allergies, auto-immunities and neoplasms. Packaged together, the group i antigens and the cell-wall adjuvants of selected aerobic Actinomycetales make potent immuno-modulatory reagents. An example is heat-killed Mycobacterium vaccae, useful in both prevention and treatment of disease. Treatment with such reagents results in alleviation of disease, restoration of cellular responsiveness to the common mycobacterial antigens and a decrease in antibody titres to them. This new approach to treatment for such a wide range of diseases has few disadvantageous side effects and can accompany other non-immunosuppressive therapies.