Oral tolerance is a biologically relevant pathway for inducing peripheral tolerance to foreign antigens. The mechanisms responsible for the tolerant state following feeding with antigen have been shown to involve both anergy and suppression. The demonstration of anergic T lymphocytes following oral tolerance has so far been limited in in vitro systems, and a primary objective of the present study was to provide evidence, in vivo, for the existence of a state of anergy in mice orally fed with ovalbumin (OVA). In addition, it has been shown that peripheral anergy following the intravenous administration of antigen is selectively induced in Th1 lymphocytes. Thus, a second objective of this study was to investigate whether tolerance induced by a feeding regimen known to cause anergy could be selectively limited to Th1 lymphocytes, and whether tolerance induction could be explained by antigen absorption from the gut into the circulation. Oral tolerance was induced by a single feeding with OVA, and was demonstrated by diminished antibody production in vivo, and by reduced cytokine secretion or proliferation in vitro. Anergy, as a mechanism for tolerance, was demonstrated by the ability to reverse the tolerant state after culturing tolerant cells in recombinant interleukin-2 (rIL-2). Reversal of the tolerant state in vivo was established by antibody production in irradiated mice adoptively transferred with cells cultured in the presence of rIL-2. The possibility that suppression was also an in vivo mechanism for tolerance was studied by adoptive transfer experiments. Our results show: 1) that a single dose of orally administered OVA leads to the selective tolerization of Th1 responses (diminished IgG2a, IL-2 and interferon-gamma production) with intact Th2 responses (IgG1, and IL-4), 2) that tolerance in vivo is explained by anergy in the absence of active suppression, 3) that exposure of tolerant cells to rIL-2 in vitro abrogates the anergic state both in vitro (proliferation and cytokine secretion) and in vivo (IgG2a production), and 4) that the induction of oral tolerance is inhibited by the presence of antibodies specific for the tolerizing antigen. These findings indicate that the induction of anergy via the oral route might depend on the dissemination of antigen absorbed from the gut. It is suggested that tolerance is guaranteed by the fact that this absorbed antigen is presented to Th1 lymphocytes in the absence of inflammatory and co-stimulatory molecules; these foreign antigens are thus not different from self antigens.