Oral administration of mycobacterial 65-kDa heat shock protein (HSP) given daily for 5 days prior to immunization with Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mt) suppressed the development of adjuvant arthritis (AA) in rats. AA was significantly suppressed by 30 and 300 micrograms HSP, and variably by 0.3, 3 micrograms or 1 mg. Histological analysis of joint samples obtained from control and test rats confirmed the suppression of AA in the fed group. Feeding Mt or hen egg lysozyme (HEL) failed to affect AA, indicating that the suppression was HSP specific. The oral administration of 30 micrograms HSP decreased both delayed-type hypersensitivity (DTH) reactions and proliferative responses to HSP and Mt. In addition, the proliferation of lymph node cells (LNC) from Mt-sensitized rats was inhibited by the addition of spleen cells (SPC) from HSP-fed animals, possibly by the secretion of transforming growth factor (TGF)-beta. Spleen cells obtained from tolerized donors were capable of transferring the tolerance to naive recipients. These results demonstrate that feeding HSP is an effective way to suppress AA and that the suppression of AA may be mediated by regulatory T cells generated following oral administration of mycobacterial 65-kDa HSP.