Intestinal flora plays a critical role in the initiation and perpetuation of inflammatory bowel disease. This study examined whether live fecal bacteria were necessary for the initiation of this inflammatory response or whether sterile fecal material would provoke a similar response. Three preparations of fecal material were prepared: (1) a slurry of live fecal bacteria, (2) a sterile lysate of bacterial antigens, and (3) a sterile filtrate of fecal water. Each preparation was introduced via gastric gavage into the intestines of axenic interleukin-10 gene-deficient mice genetically predisposed to develop inflammatory bowel disease. Intestinal barrier integrity and degrees of mucosal and systemic inflammations were determined for each preparation group. Intestinal barrier integrity, as determined by mannitol transmural flux, was altered by both live fecal bacterial and sterile lysates of bacterial antigens, although it was not altered by sterile filtrates of fecal water. However, only live fecal bacteria initiated mucosal inflammation and injury and a systemic immune response. Fecal bacterial antigens in the presence of live bacteria and sterile fecal bacterial antigens have different effects on the initiation and perpetuation of intestinal inflammation.