Staphylococcal enterotoxin B (SEB) is a bacterial enterotoxin able to simultaneously bind to class II molecules on APCs and to selected V beta regions (including V beta 8) of the TCR complex. Administration of SEB to adult BALB/c mice results in clonal activation of T cells bearing V beta 8 receptors, leading to an excessive release of proinflammatory cytokines. This initial immune response is followed by a long-lasting state of V beta 8-specific unresponsiveness, thought to benefit both the host (as it contributes to the down-regulation of the inflammatory response) and the bacterium (through ligand-specific T cell anergy). However, it is not clear how this type of restricted unresponsiveness can effectively impair the generation of an antibacterial response. To gain insight into the mechanism by which Gram-positive bacteria subvert the host immune response, we have investigated the immune competence of SEB-treated mice 48 h following SEB administration. We demonstrate in this report that in vivo, SEB induces a transient but profound state of unresponsiveness affecting both T and Ag-presenting cell functions. Although in vivo activation by SEB appears to be V beta-restricted under our experimental conditions, SEB-treated mice displayed an early (lasting 48 to 72 h postinjection) and V beta-unrestricted unresponsive state characterized by the inability to produce IL-2 in response to polyclonal TCR mitogens including third party bacterial superantigens (staphylococcal enterotoxin A and toxic shock syndrome toxin 1, SEA and TSST-1, respectively), Abs to non-SEB reactive V beta regions (V beta 6), anti-CD3 epsilon Abs, and a lectin (Con A). Spleen cell populations from SEB-treated mice also displayed defective APC functions, possibly related to a selective decrease in splenic dendritic cells numbers. Taken together, these observations indicate that SEB induces an early and transient state of immunodeficiency in vivo, representing a potential mechanism for escaping host immune surveillance.