To investigate the responses of dendritic cells (DC) during Gram-negative infections, we analyzed the effects of graded doses of LPS on the cytokine profile, phenotype, and allostimulatory potential of human DC generated by culturing plastic-adherent PBMC in presence of IL-4 and granulocyte-macrophage-CSF. First, we found that LPS stimulates the production of high levels of TNF-alpha, IL-6, IL-8, IL-12 by DC and up-regulates their expression of HLA-DR, B7-1, B7-2, and CD40. The effects of LPS were dose dependent, with a significant stimulatory effect already observed at a concentration of 0.1 ng/ml and a plateau being reached at 10 ng/ml. These phenotypic changes correlated with increased allostimulatory properties of LPS-activated DC because DC treated with LPS were significantly more efficient than untreated DC in eliciting IL-2 and IFN-gamma synthesis by alloreactive T cells and stimulating their proliferation. Experiments using neutralizing anti-IL-12 mAb indicated that LPS-induced IL-12 is responsible for the increased production of IFN-gamma but not for the increased proliferation during MLR. Finally, we observed that the DC responses to low levels of LPS (1 ng/ml) were dramatically inhibited by a blocking anti-CD14 mAb, although DC do not express CD14 molecules on their membrane. Experiments using serum depleted of soluble CD14 (sCD14) and sCD14 either purified from human serum or in recombinant form further established that DC respond to LPS via a soluble CD14-dependent pathway.