Delayed-type hypersensitivity responses, mediated by CD8+ cells and detected by skin test assay, occur in sensitized mice in response to challenge with a class I-restricted synthetic peptide related to a poorly immunogenic tumor rejection Ag, P815AB, of murine mastocytoma cells. Efficient priming for this response, which requires functional CD4+ cells and production of IFN-gamma in the host, is achieved by transfer of dendritic cells (DC) pulsed in vitro with a physical mixture of P815AB and T helper peptides, such as a class II-restricted synthetic peptide of tetanus toxin. We now show that the adjuvant effect of the T helper peptide was associated with the appearance of early and late IL-12 transcripts in the spleens of DC recipient mice, correlated with a late IFN-gamma response, and was negated by serologic ablation of endogenous IL-12 at the time of cell transfer. rIL-12, administered in vivo to the DC recipient mice, could substitute for the T helper peptide in initiating skin test reactivity following transfer of DC pulsed with P815AB alone, leading to Ag-specific production of IFN-gamma by CD4+ and CD8+ T cells. In vitro and in vivo cell depletion experiments suggested the following: 1) the exogenous IL-12 required both CD4+ and CD8+ cells for activity; 2) the immune response initiated by IL-12 relied on later production of IL-12 by the host; and 3) the early adjuvanticity of the exogenous IL-12 involved improved recognition of class II-restricted epitopes of this otherwise poorly immunogenic tumor peptide.