We have recently made the paradoxical observation that a single injection of recombinant murine interleukin-12 (IL-12) on the day of bone marrow transplantation (BMT) inhibits graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) in lethally irradiated mice receiving fully major histocompatability complex (MHC)-mismatched bone marrow and spleen cells. We have now examined the mechanism of this effect of IL-12 on acute GVHD. By day 4 post-BMT, IL-12-treated mice showed marked reductions in splenic donor CD4(+) and CD8(+) T cells compared with GVHD controls. Expression of the early activation markers IL-2R alpha chain (CD25) and CD69 on splenic donor CD4(+) cells was considerably higher at early time points (36 and 72 hours post-BMT) in IL-12-treated mice compared with GVHD controls. However, the later, GVHD-associated increase in CD25 and very late antigen-4 (VLA-4) expression on donor T cells was greatly depressed in IL-12-protected mice compared with GVHD controls. The marked GVHD-associated expansion of host-reactive T helper cells by day 4 was also completely inhibited in the IL-12-treated group. Expression of Fas was increased on donor CD4 cells of IL-12-treated mice compared with those of controls on days 3 through 7 post-BMT. Furthermore, the ability of IL-12 to protect against GVHD was at least partially dependent on the ability of donor cells to express functional Fas molecules. We conclude that IL-12 treatment at the time of BMT markedly perturbs the activation of alloreactive donor CD4(+) T cells that play a critical role in the pathogenesis of acute GVHD. We hypothesize that these perturbations culminate in Fas-dependent apoptosis of donor T cells, thus impeding their expansion and their GVHD-promoting activity.