Transfer of 2 x 10(5) congenic or semiallogenic purified TCR alphabeta+ CD4+ T cells to SCID mice leads to an infiltration of the recipient gut lamina propria and epithelium with a donor-derived CD4+ T cell subset which induces a lethal inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in the recipients. In contrast, IBD was not observed in SCID mice transplanted with unfractionated splenic cells. The earliest detectable pathological changes after CD4+ T cell transfer were proliferation and hypertrophy of the entire colonic epithelial layer, including increased mitotic activity, increased expression of epithelial nuclear proliferation antigen, and elongation of the crypts. Later on, massive mononuclear cell infiltration, hypertrophy of all layers of the colon and occasional epithelial ulcerations were observed. At this stage, accumulations of IgA, IgM and small numbers of IgG1-, IgG2- and IgG3-secreting plasma cells were present in the lamina propria of both the small and large intestine. We conclude that low numbers of intraveneously transferred CD4+ T cells induce IBD in SCID mice. In the late stages of CD4+ T cell-induced IBD, the colonic lamina propria becomes infiltrated with macrophages, neutrophils and plasma cells secreting IgA, IgM, and to a lesser degree IgG antibodies which might play an accessory role in the pathogenesis of IBD.