Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) results from a breakdown of tolerance towards the indigenous flora in genetically susceptible hosts. Failure of dendritic cells (DC) to interpret molecular microbial patterns appropriately when directing innate and adaptive immune responses is conceivable. Primary (conventional, non-monocyte generated) CD1c+CD11c+CD14-CD16-CD19- myeloid blood or mucosal dendritic cells (mDC) from 76 patients with Crohn's disease (CD) or ulcerative colitis (UC) in remission, during flare-ups (FU) and 76 healthy or non-IBD controls were analysed by fluorescence activated cell sorter (FACS) flow cytometry and real-time polymerase chain reaction. Cytokine secretion of freshly isolated, cultured and lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-stimulated highly purified mDC (purity >95%) was assessed using cytometric bead arrays (CBA). More cultured and stimulated circulating mDC express CD40 in IBD patients. Stimulated circulating mDC from IBD patients secrete significantly more tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-α and interleukin (IL)-8. Toll-like receptor (TLR)-4 expression by mDC was higher in remission and increased significantly in flaring UC and CD patients compared with remission (P < 0·05) and controls (P < 0·001). Fluorochrome-labelled LPS uptake by mDC was evaluated at different time-points over 24 h by measuring mean fluorescence intensity (MFI). Circulating mDC from IBD patients take up more LPS and the uptake begins earlier compared with controls (P < 0·05 in CD-FU and UC-FU at 24 h). The frequency of mucosal mDC (P < 0·05) and the number of CD40 expressing mucosal mDC is significantly greater in UC and CD compared with non-IBD controls (P < 0·001 versus P < 0·01, respectively). Our data suggest an aberrant LPS response of mDC in IBD patients, resulting in an inflammatory phenotype and possibly intestinal homing in acute flares.