The mechanism of immune activation induced by a plasmid-encoding GM-CSF (pGM-CSF), administered in combination with a DNA vaccine encoding the envelope of HIV, was studied, injecting pGM-CSF i.m. into mice 3 days before DNA vaccination primarily induced a Th2 response. Simultaneous administration of the DNA vaccine plus pGM-CSF activated both a Th1 and a Th2 response. When the plasmid was injected 3 days after DNA vaccination, enhancement of Th1 immunity predominated. These results suggest that the timing of cytokine expression determines the phenotype of the resultant Th response. After 3 days of pGM-CSF injection, the increased percentages of CD11c+, CD8+ cells were observed in the regional lymph nodes. In addition, many infiltrated cells, including S-100 protein-positive cells, were found in the pGM-CSF- injected tissue. The importance of these S-100+ cells or both CD8+ and CD11c+ cells, especially that of dendritic cells (DCs), was also studied. DCs derived from bone marrow and cultured in RPMI 1640 medium containing IL-4 and GM-CSF were incubated with DNA vaccine and then transferred into naive mice. Mice receiving DCs showed strong HIV-1-specific Th2 immune responses. Our results suggest that DCs play important roles in the activation or modification of the Th2-type immune response induced by DNA vaccination.