Mercury induces a systemic autoimmune condition characterized by auto-antibodies to the nucleolar protein fibrillarin (AFA) and systemic immune-complex (IC) deposits in genetically susceptible mouse strains. This study examines T cell activation and cytokine production following mercury exposure in genetically susceptible and resistant strains. Mercury injected s.c., according to the protocol for induction of autoimmunity, caused an early T cell activation, measured as an increase of IL-2-producing cells, and increased expression of the IL-2-receptor proteins CD25 and CD122 and of the proliferation marker CD71 on days 2-4 in the susceptible A.SW and A. TH strains. This was followed by a long-lasting increase in the number of T cells, dominated by CD4(+) cells. Mice of the susceptible A.SW strain showed a modest increase of TNF-alpha-, IFN-gamma-, and IL-4-producing cells after 4-6 days, and a very distinct increase of IL-4-producing cells on days 8-10. The susceptible SJL strain (H-2(s)), severely deficient in Th2-promoting CD4(+), NK1.1(+) T cells, showed no increase of IL-4(+) cells on days 8-10. Instead, the number of IFN-gamma-producing cells was increased. Susceptible mice developed an increase of Ig-producing cells, AFA, and systemic IC-deposits. Genetically mercury-resistant A.TL mice showed a minimal increase of T cells, but no increase in cytokine-producing cells. We conclude that autoimmunogenic doses of HgCl2 induce an activation and proliferation of T cells in genetically susceptible mouse strains, as well as a broad increase of cytokine-producing cells, followed by a late predominance of the Th2-associated IL-4. One strain, severely deficient in Th2-promoting CD4(+), NK1.1(+) T cells, lacked the increase in IL-4(+) cells, indicating that a predominantly Th2-response is not necessary for induction of autoimmunity by mercury. However, a Th2-dominated response led to a faster and stronger B cell activation.