Hyporesponsiveness to a universe of bacterial and dietary antigens from the gut lumen is a hallmark of the intestinal immune system. Since hyperresponsiveness against these antigens might be associated with inflammation, we studied the immune response to the indigenous intestinal microflora in peripheral blood, inflamed and non-inflamed human intestine. Lamina propria monocuclear cells (LPMC) isolated from inflamed intestine but not peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) of IBD patients with active inflammatory disease strongly proliferated after co-culture with sonicates of bacteria from autologous intestine (BsA). Proliferation was inhibitable by anti-MHC class II MoAb, suggesting that it was driven by antigen. LPMC from adjacent non-inflamed intestinal areas of the same IBD patients and PBMC or LPMC isolated from non-inflamed intestine of controls and patients with IBD in remission, in contrast, did not proliferate. PBMC or LPMC which had been tolerant to bacteria from autologous intestine, however, strongly proliferated after co-culture with bacterial sonicates from heterologous intestine (BsH). This proliferation was associated with an expansion of CD8+ T cells, increased expression of activation markers on both CD4+ and CD8+ lymphocyte subsets, and production of IL-12, interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma), and IL-10 protein. These results show that tolerance selectively exists to intestinal flora from autologous but not heterologous intestine, and that tolerance is broken in intestinal inflammation. This may be an important mechanism for the perpetuation of chronic IBD.