Dendritic cells (DC) from human peripheral blood are susceptible to productive and probably to latent infection with HIV-I. Infection of DC also occurs in vivo since in HIV-seropositive individuals Langerhans' cells of the skin and DC from peripheral blood, (in preparation) are infected. In peripheral blood 3-25% of DC, identified as large, low-density cells lacking monocyte markers, are infected as judged by in situ hybridization with an HIV probe. This contrasts with the lower proportion (< 0.2%) of other cells infected. DC exposed to HIV in vitro or in vivo fail to present other antigens or mitogens to stimulate T cells. This functional defect in infected DC is not blocked by the presence of soluble CD4 antigen and occurs in the absence of T cell infection suggesting a block at the level of the antigen-presenting cell itself. Infection, depletion and dysfunction of DC in HIV seropositive patients is already present in asymptomatic individuals and this precedes the appearance of T cell defects. We speculate that loss of functional DC may be a fundamental defect leading to a block in recruitment of resting T cells into immune responses. In contrast to the HIV-induced impairment of antigen presentation by DC, these cells were potent stimulators of responses to the HIV antigens themselves. Normal DC infected with HIV in vitro stimulated primary proliferative and cytotoxic T cell responses (in preparation). These were produced in cells from individuals expressing a range of different MHC types but the cytotoxic cells, once produced, killed autologous but not allogeneic, infected T cell blasts. Primary response to viral peptides can also be produced suggesting that this system may be useful for identifying immunogenic epitopes of HIV using cells from sero-negative, non-immunocompromised individuals.