Investigations with animals demonstrate that dietary nucleotides influence immune function. Restriction of dietary nucleotides in mice decreases several indices of cell-mediated immunity as well as resistance to challenge with Staphylococcus aureus or Candida albicans. Spleen cells of mice maintained on nucleotide-free diet produce less interleukin-2 and have lower natural killer cell cytotoxicity and macrophage activation than those of animals fed nucleotide-supplemented diets. In vivo lymphoproliferative response, macrophage phagocytic activity and expression of interleukin-2 receptor and lyt1 surface marker are also lower in animals fed nucleotide-free diets. At 2 mo of age, infants fed breast milk or nucleotide-supplemented infant formula exhibit increased natural killer cell activity compared with infants fed unsupplemented formula. Dietary nucleotide restriction in animals may also result in hepatic lipid accumulation and decreased mucosal height and gut wall thickness. Adenosine monophosphate, a mediator of hepatic and small bowel blood flow, may play a unique role among the nucleotides studied. In conclusion, de novo synthesis and salvage of nucleotides is a metabolically costly process. An exogenous source of nucleotides from the diet may optimize the function of rapidly dividing tissues, particularly when growth is rapid and the diet is low in nucleotides.