A ribosomal preparation from Streptococcus mutans 6715 was characterized for its ability to induce an immune response in gnotobiotic rats which was protective against S. mutans-induced dental caries. Animals injected in the salivary gland region with the S. mutans ribosomal vaccine developed significantly higher (P less than 0.01) salivary IgA and serum IgG antibody activities against whole S. mutans cells and ribosomal preparations than nonimmunized rats. Vaccinated animals had significantly lower (67%; P less than 0.01) levels of S. mutans adherent to their molar surfaces than the control rats after infection with the homologous, cariogenic S. mutans. The immunized animals had significantly fewer (P less than 0.01) carious lesions on their buccal, sulcal, and proximal molar surfaces than the nonimmunized rats following challenge with the virulent organism. Animals injected with the ribosomal preparation developed salivary IgA and IgG antibodies with specificities to various cell surface-associated antigens such as lipoteichoic acid and glucosyltransferase, suggesting that the observed protection may be due to antibodies against cell surface contaminants of the ribosomal vaccine. These results are the first demonstration that a ribosomal preparation from S. mutans protected rats from caries formation after challenge with the homologous, virulent S. mutans.