ABSTRACT: The responses of human milk lymphocytes (MIL) to a variety of immunogenic stimuli were studied and compared to those of peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) from the milk donors. MIL showed a decreased proliferative response to mitogens and allogeneic leukocytes in vitro but displayed the ability to stimulate alloreactivity equivalent to PBL. Neither pretreatment with cell-free autologous milk nor co-cultured MIL were capable of suppressing the proliferative responses of PBL. Moreover, macrophages isolated from milk and pulsed with soluble antigen or allogeneic cells effectively induced proliferation by peripheral blood T cells whereas the response of milk nonadherent cells to antigen presented by peripheral macrophages was very low. MIL respond better to pathogenic enteric E. coli than PBL but not as well as PBL to Yersinia enterocolitica. Treatment of MIL with monoclonal antibodies cytotoxic for T cells abolished their response to bacterial antigens. Application of an anti HLA class II antigen monoclonal antibody to mixed lymphocyte or lymphocyte-bacteria cultures resulted in substantial inhibition of the MIL response similarly to that of PBL. The relevance of these data to the immunological needs of the neonate are discussed.