Previously we have demonstrated that islets of Langerhans treated with donor-specific anti-Ia serum and complement survive when transplanted across the major histocompatibility complex of the mouse. In this study, using immunofluorescence, we demonstrate two morphologically distinct populations of Ia-positive cells scattered within the Ia-negative islet tissue. A large irregularly shaped Ia-positive subset of cells were identified as dendritic cells by using the 33D1 antibody specific for a mouse dendritic cell antigen. The other small, round Ia-positive subset was 33D1 negative. Islets pretreated with anti-dendritic cell antibody and complement prior to transplantation survived in their histoincompatible recipients for greater than 200 days. Rejection of stable islet allografts promptly occurred when transplant recipients were challenged with 1 X 10(5) donor dendritic cells 60 days after transplantation. These results demonstrate an important in vivo role for donor dendritic cells in the stimulation of allograft rejection.