The effects of four commercial strains of Streptococcus thermophilus used in yogurt manufacturing on cytokine production were evaluated by using a macrophage model (RAW 264.7 cells) and a T-helper-cell model (EL4.IL-2 thymoma cells) and compared to immunologically active strains of Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Bifidobacterium adolescentis, and Bifidobacterium bifidum. All cytokines (TNF-alpha and IL-6 in RAW 264.7 cells and IL-2 and IL-5 in EL4.IL-2 cells) were affected by heat-killed S. thermophilus in a strain- and dose-dependent fashion. Organisms of all three genera induced significant increases in IL-6 production by the macrophage line ranging from 31- to 192-fold, with S. thermophilus St 133 showing the greatest activity. The four S. thermophilus strains also strongly induced TNF-alpha production (from 135- to 176-fold). IL-6 and, to a lesser extent, TNF-alpha production were also increased when the macrophages were costimulated with lipopolysaccharide and cells of the three groups of lactic acid bacteria. Upon concurrent stimulation of EL4.IL-2 cells with phorbol 12-myristate-13-acetate, seven of the eight strains displayed significant enhancement of IL-2 and IL-5 production, with S. thermophilus being most effective. Taken together, the S. thermophilus strains stimulated macrophage and T-cell cytokine production to a similar or greater extent than did the species of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. These and previous results lend further support to the contention that lactic acid bacteria, in a concentration-dependent manner, can differentially induce cytokine production in macrophages, but that the effects on T cells required a costimulatory signal and were less remarkable.