Mice with homologous disruption of the gene coding for either the p35 subunit or the p40 subunit of interleukin-12 (IL-12) and derived from a strain genetically resistant to infection with Leishmania major have been used to study further the role of this cytokine in resistance to infection and the differentiation of functional CD4+ T cell subsets in vivo. Wild-type 129/Sv/Ev mice are resistant to infection with L. major showing only small lesions which resolve spontaneously within a few weeks and develop a type 1 CD4+ T cell response. In contrast, mice lacking bioactive IL-12 (IL-12p35-/- and IL-12p40-/-) developed large, progressing lesions. Whereas resistant mice were able to mount a delayed-type hypersensitivity (DTH) response to Leishmania antigen, susceptible BALB/c mice as well as IL-12-deficient 129/Sv/Ev mice did not show any DTH reaction. To characterize the functional phenotype of CD4+ T cells triggered in infected wild-type mice and IL-12-deficient mice, the expression of mRNA for interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) and interleukin-4 (IL-4) in purified CD4+ lymph node cells was analyzed. Wild-type 129/Sv/Ev mice showed high levels of mRNA for IFN-gamma and low levels of mRNA for IL-4 which is indicative of a Th1 response. In contrast, IL-12- deficient mice and susceptible BALB/c mice developed a strong Th2 response with high levels of IL-4 mRNA and low levels of IFN-gamma mRNA in CD4+ T cells. Similarly, lymph node cells from infected wild-type 129 mice produced predominantly IFN-gamma in response to stimulation with Leishmania antigen in vitro whereas lymph node cells from IL-12-deficient mice and susceptible BALB/c mice produced preferentially IL-4. Taken together, these results confirm in vivo the importance of IL-12 in induction of Th1 responses and protective immunity against L. major.