The relationship between the so-called natural interferon-alpha (IFN-alpha) producing cell (IPC), stimulated to produce IFN-alpha by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV), and of dendritic cells (DC) in peripheral blood leucocytes was investigated. The simultaneous expression of cell surface antigens and intracellular IFN-alpha in the HSV-stimulated IPC (HSV-IPC) was examined by flow cytometry (FCM). The HSV-IPC were infrequent, < 0.3% of the mononuclear leucocytes, and with homogeneous light scatter characteristics. The HSV-IPC were confirmed to lack leucocyte lineage specific markers, and to express CD4, CD36 and HLA-DR. Furthermore, they expressed high levels of CD44, CD45RA and CD45RB, and lower levels of CD40, CD45R0, CD72 and CD83. The HSV-IPC expression of CD13, CD33 and Fc epsilon RI were weak but significant, while no CD5, CD11b, CD16, CD64, CD80 or CD86 were detected. Sorted pure HSV-IPC had irregular shaped nuclei, many mitochondria and vesicles, and rugged cell membranes without veils. Sorted HSV-IPC stimulated proliferation of autologous T cells from HSV immune donors. Thus, the HSV-IPC in many respects resemble immature DC, but clearly differ from typical mature DC. However, they may also represent a specialized population of efficient IFN-alpha producing cells.