C3H/HeJBir mice are a new substrain that spontaneously develop colitis early in life. This study was done to determine the T cell reactivity of C3H/HeJBir mice to candidate antigens that might be involved in their disease. C3H/HeJBir CD4+ T cells were strongly reactive to antigens of the enteric bacterial flora, but not to epithelial or food antigens. The stimulatory material in the enteric bacteria was trypsin sensitive and restricted by class II major histocompatibility complex molecules, but did not have the properties of a superantigen. The precursor frequency of interleuken (IL)-2-producing, bacterial-reactive CD4+ T cells in colitic mice was 1 out of 2,000 compared to 1 out of 20,000-25,000 in noncolitic control mice. These T cells produced predominately IL-2 and interferon gamma, consistent with a T helper type 1 cell response and were present at 3-4 wk, the age of onset of the colitis. Adoptive transfer of bacterial-antigen-activated CD4+ T cells from colitic C3H/HeJBir but not from control C3H/HeJ mice into C3H/HeSnJ scid/scid recipients induced colitis. These data represent a direct demonstration that T cells reactive with conventional antigens of the enteric bacterial flora can mediate chronic inflammatory bowel disease.