T cells from the intestinal mucosal proliferate poorly in vitro, and the contribution of Ag-specific recognition to this hyporesponsiveness is unclear, since the Ag repertoire of intestinal mucosal T cells is unknown. In this study, T cell proliferation in response to Ag-prepulsed autologous peripheral blood-derived APC was examined. Whereas T cells from peripheral blood proliferated to inner membrane and cytoplasmic Escherichia coli proteins, T cells from intestinal mucosa responded only to purified component Ags of these proteins and not to their combination. This suggests that the lack of proliferation in response to these Ags presented as a mixture is not due to the absence of E. coli-specific T cells in the mucosa, but, rather, to down-regulation after T cell recognition. Down-regulation was assayed by measuring the inhibition of autologous peripheral blood T cell proliferation in response to Ag-prepulsed APC. Coculture with leukocytes from intestinal mucosa and not from mesenteric lymph nodes, inhibited autologous peripheral blood T cell proliferation in response to E. coli proteins, but not to tetanus toxoid, PHA, or IL-2. Inhibition was independent of cell contact, provided APC were available to the mucosal cell population, and was reversible by neutralization of IL-10 or TGF-beta with mAb or depletion of mucosal CD4+ T cells. Taken together, the data suggest that mucosal T cell unresponsiveness to luminal Ags is mediated by production of inhibitory cytokines after specific Ag recognition by CD4+ T cells.