The mechanism responsible for the induction of immunological tolerance by oral administration of soluble antigen remains unclear. Here we show that, when cultured in vitro in the absence of antigen, lymphocytes from mice tolerized with a single feed of 25 mg of ovalbumin display an enhanced mortality in comparison with cells from immunized control animals. This increased cell death affects both CD4+ and CD8+ T-lymphocyte subsets, and morphological and flow cytometric analyses suggest that it occurs via apoptosis. All of the changes associated with the propensity of tolerant cells to die by apoptosis in vitro are reduced by the inclusion of the tolerizing antigen in the cultures. These results suggest that tolerance to dietary proteins is accompanied by functional changes in T lymphocytes that render them susceptible to apoptosis. This mechanism may underlie the profound and permanent tolerance to food antigens found under physiological conditions and may provide a useful basis for immunotherapy.