Primary proliferative T cell responses require stimulation with antigen-pulsed dendritic cells (Ag-DC). Here we show that for optimal stimulation, dendritic cells (DC) not exposed directly to antigen are also required. Ag-DC added to DC-depleted T cells caused negligible primary stimulation; adding back DC resulted in stimulation. These effects were seen using the contact sensitizer fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC), FITC conjugated to ovalbumin (FITC-OVA) or influenza virus as antigens. DC co-cultured with Ag-DC (using FITC or FITC-OVA) acquired antigen indicating that antigen was transferred between DC. DC that acquired antigen secondarily were separated by cell sorting and stimulated primary T cell proliferation directly. DC were also pulsed with FITC, washed thoroughly and incubated overnight. Supernatants contained shed antigen since DC incubated in these supernatants acquired antigen as indicated by flow cytometry. DC acquiring the shed antigen also stimulated T cell proliferation although the stimulation was not as effective as that seen when cell contact between DC and antigen-bearing DC occurred. Thus, in primary stimulation, activation of T cells may occur when there is an antigen gradient between Ag-DC and DC and the mechanisms underlying these effects are now being sought. We propose that this unique interaction between antigen-presenting cells may be a paradigm for self/non-self discrimination.