The soy phytoestrogen, genistein, induces thymic atrophy when administered to ovariectomized mice by injection or in the diet. Injected genistein also causes decreased humoral immunity, but the effects of genistein on cell-mediated immunity have not been addressed. Here we examined effects of injected and dietary genistein on cell-mediated immune responses. Female C57BL/6 mice (25- to 27-days-old) were ovariectomized, then placed on phytoestrogen-free feed 5 days later. Seven days after ovariectomy, they were given daily subcutaneous injections of either dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO) or genistein (8, 20, 80 mg/kg) for 28 days; some mice were given 80 mg/kg genistein plus the anti-estrogen ICI 182,780 (5 mg/kg/week). Cell-mediated immune response was tested by analyzing the delayed-type hypersensitivity (DTH) response to a hapten, 4-hydroxy-3-nitrophenyl acetyl succinimide (NP-O-SU), at the end of treatment. Reversibility, of the effects of genistein was tested by measuring the DTH response in mice that were given genistein (20 or 80 mg/kg) for 28 days, then allowed to recover for 28 days. To determine if dietary genistein could affect cell-mediated immunity, mice ovariectomized as above were fed genistein at 0, 1000 or 1500 parts per million (ppm) for 28 days. There was a 46-67% decrease in the DTH response in the footpads of mice injected with 8-80 mg/kg genistein compared with controls (P<0.05 vs control for all treatment groups); these effects were reversible. On histopathological examination of the feet, there was decreased cell infiltration in genistein-treated animals compared with controls, and the numbers of CD4+ and CD8+ T cells in popliteal lymph nodes were reduced. The effects of genistein are mediated through both estrogen receptor (ER) and non-ER pathways, as the anti-estrogen ICI 182,780 only partially blocked the effects of genistein on the DTH response. Dietary genistein (1000 or 1500 ppm) decreased cell-mediated immunity while producing serum genistein concentrations in the physiological range for humans under certain nutritional conditions. Further work is needed to determine if dietary genistein and phytoestrogen exposure can produce effects on cell-mediated immunity in humans or other animals under various nutritional conditions.