The influence of the cytokine interleukin-12 (IL-12) on humoral immune responses was studied in vivo. CBA/J mice immunized with protein antigens (keyhole limpet hemocyanin, phospholipase A2) adsorbed to aluminum hydroxide (Alum) develop a Th2-like immune response characterized by the production of large amounts of IgG1 as well as some IgE but little IgG2a, IgG2b and IgG3 antibodies. IL-12 is a cytokine that promotes the development and the activation of Th1 cells. Th1 cells are involved in the induction of cellular immunity, which is characterized by low or absent antibody production. On the other hand, some Th1-like immune responses are associated with a strong antibody production of the IgG2a, IgG2b and IgG3 subclasses. Thus, we investigated whether treatment with IL-12 would down-regulate the humoral immune response or stimulate antibody production of the IgG2a, IgG2b and IgG3 subclasses. We observed that: 1) administration of IL-12 to mice together with protein antigens adsorbed to Alum strongly enhanced the humoral immune response by increasing the synthesis of antigen-specific antibodies of the IgG2a, IgG2b and IgG3 subclasses 10- to 1000-fold. The synthesis of IgG1 was not or only slightly (2-5-fold) enhanced, whereas that of the IgE isotype was suppressed. 2) These effects of IL-12 were observed when high (10 micrograms, 100 micrograms) or low doses (0.1 microgram) of antigen were used for immunization. 3) Titration of IL-12 in vitro revealed that IgG2a is strongly up-regulated over a wide dose range of IL-12 (10 to 1000 ng/day). 4) The effects of IL-12 in vivo are at least partially interferon (IFN)-gamma-dependent because an anti-IFN-gamma mAb in combination with IL-12 prevented most of the enhanced IgG2a production. 5) Mice receiving IL-12 showed a strong up-regulation of IFN-gamma but no inhibition of IL-5 synthesis by spleen cells activated ex vivo with antigen. These results suggest that IL-12 is a potent adjuvant for enhancing humoral immunity to protein antigens adsorbed to Alum, primarily by inducing the synthesis of the complement-fixing IgG subclasses 2a, 2b and 3.