The facultative intracellular bacterium Listeria monocytogenes is an invasive pathogen that crosses the vascular endothelium and disseminates to the placenta and the central nervous system. Its interaction with endothelial cells is crucial for the pathogenesis of listeriosis. By infecting in vitro human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC) with L. monocytogenes, we found that wild-type bacteria induced the expression of the adhesion molecules (ICAM-1 and E-selectin), chemokine secretion (IL-8 and monocyte chemotactic protein-1) and NF-κB nuclear translocation. The activation of HUVEC required viable bacteria and was abolished in prfA-deficient mutants of L. monocytogenes, suggesting that virulence genes are associated with endothelial cell activation. Using a genetic approach with mutants of virulence genes, we found that listeriolysin O (LLO)-deficient mutants inactivated in the hly gene did not induce HUVEC activation, as opposed to mutants inactivated in the other virulence genes. Adhesion molecule expression, chemokine secretion and NF-κB activation were fully restored by a strain of Listeria innocua transformed with the hly gene encoding LLO. The relevance in vivo of endothelial cell activation for listerial pathogenesis was investigated in transgenic mice carrying an NF-κB-responsive lacZ reporter gene. NF-κB activation was visualized by a strong lacZ expression in endothelial cells of capillaries of mice infected with a virulent haemolytic strain, but was not seen in those infected with a non-haemolytic isogenic mutant. Direct evidence that LLO is involved in NF-κB activation in transgenic mice was provided by injecting intravenously purified LLO, thus inducing stimulation of NF-κB in endothelial cells of blood capillaries. Our results demonstrate that functional listeriolysin O secreted by bacteria contributes as a potent inflammatory stimulus to inducing endothelial cell activation during the infectious process.