Relative to several other toll-like receptor (TLR) agonists, we found polyinosinic:polycytidylic acid (poly IC) to be the most effective adjuvant for Th1 CD4+ T cell responses to a dendritic cell (DC)-targeted HIV gag protein vaccine in mice. To identify mechanisms for adjuvant action in the intact animal and the polyclonal T cell repertoire, we found poly IC to be the most effective inducer of type I interferon (IFN), which was produced by DEC-205+ DCs, monocytes, and stromal cells. Antibody blocking or deletion of type I IFN receptor showed that IFN was essential for DC maturation and development of CD4+ immunity. The IFN-AR receptor was directly required for DCs to respond to poly IC. STAT 1 was also essential, in keeping with the type I IFN requirement, but not type II IFN or IL-12 p40. Induction of type I IFN was mda5 dependent, but DCs additionally used TLR3. In bone marrow chimeras, radioresistant and, likely, nonhematopoietic cells were the main source of IFN, but mda5 was required in both marrow-derived and radioresistant host cells for adaptive responses. Therefore, the adjuvant action of poly IC requires a widespread innate type I IFN response that directly links antigen presentation by DCs to adaptive immunity.