Murine epidermal Langerhans cells (LC) have been studied in tissue culture and compared to spleen dendritic cells (DC). LC comprised 3% of the starting cell suspensions and were distinguished from keratinocytes by cytology and reactivity with anti-Ia and anti-Mac-1 monoclonal antibodies. The LC were nonadherent, had a low buoyant density, did not proliferate, and could be enriched to 10-50% purity. LC continued to exhibit Ia and Mac-1 antigens for 4 d in culture. However, LC rapidly lost Birbeck granules, Fc receptors, F4/80 antigen, and cytochemical reactivity for nonspecific esterase and membrane ATPase. As a result, the ultrastructure and phenotype of cultured LC became remarkably similar to lymphoid DC. Stimulatory capacity for T cell proliferative responses (oxidative mitogenesis and the mixed leukocyte reaction) was monitored daily. Initially, stimulatory capacity was very weak, even though LC expressed substantial levels of Ia antigens. After 2-3 d in culture, LC had become 3-10 times more potent than spleen DC. 30 LC could induce significant responses in cultures of 3 X 10(5) responding T cells. Removal of Ia+ LC at the start of culture ablated the development of stimulatory activity, but exposure to 1,500 rad of ionizing irradiation did not. Mixing experiments showed that contaminating Ia- epidermal cells did not alter the function of Ia+ stimulators. Therefore, LC seem to be immunologically immature, but acquire many of the features of spleen DC during culture. We suggest that functioning lymphoid DC may, in general, be derived from less mature precursors located in nonlymphoid tissues.