Certain bacterial immunostimulatory (i.s.) DNA sequences containing unmethylated CpG motifs stimulate antigen-presenting cells (APC) to express a full complement of costimulatory molecules and to produce cytokines including interleukin (IL)-12 and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha. While IL-12 is key to their T helper cell (Th)1-promoting adjuvant activity, secretion of toxic levels of TNF-alpha is harmful in that it promotes toxic shock. Given the beneficial as well as harmful consequences of i.s. DNA, we investigated the possibility of identifying DNA sequences, i.e. CpG oligodeoxynucleotides (ODN) which differentially activate IL-12 versus TNF-alpha cytokine production in APC. Here, we describe an i.s. DNA sequence with these characteristics. While its potential to induce IL-12 is preserved, its ability to trigger TNF-alpha release is strongly curtailed both in vitro and in vivo. I.s. DNA could be segregated into lethal and non-lethal in a mouse toxic shock model. The non-toxic i.s. DNA was useful as an adjuvant, thus allowing cytotoxic T cell responses to the soluble protein ovalbumin and conferring a resistant Th 1 phenotype to BALB/c mice lethally infected with Leishmania major. This i.s. CpG motif may thus be prototypic for a useful immunostimulating DNA sequence that lacks harmful side effects.