We have employed the guinea pig model of L. pneumophila infection, which mimics Legionnaires' disease in humans both clinically and pathologically, to study humoral and cell-mediated immune responses to L. pneumophila and to examine protective immunity after aerosol exposure, the natural route of infection. Guinea pigs exposed to sublethal concentrations of L. pneumophila by aerosol developed strong humoral immune responses. By the indirect fluorescent antibody assay, exposed guinea pigs had a median serum antibody titer (expressed as the reciprocal of the highest positive dilution) of 32, whereas control guinea pigs had a median titer of less than 1. Sublethally infected (immunized) guinea pigs also developed strong cell-mediated immune responses. In response to L. pneumophila antigens, splenic lymphocytes from immunized but not control animals proliferated strongly in vitro, as measured by their capacity to incorporate [3H]thymidine. Moreover, immunized but not control guinea pigs developed strong cutaneous delayed-type hypersensitivity to intradermally injected L. pneumophila antigens. Sublethally infected (immunized) guinea pigs exhibited strong protective immunity to L. pneumophila. In two independent experiments, all 22 immunized guinea pigs survived aerosol challenge with one or three times the lethal dose of L. pneumophila whereas none of 16 sham-immunized control guinea pigs survived (p less than 0.0001 in each experiment). Immunized guinea pigs were not protected significantly from challenge with 10 times the lethal dose. Immunized but not control animals cleared the bacteria from their lungs. This study demonstrates that guinea pigs sublethally infected with L. pneumophila by the aerosol route develop strong humoral immune responses to this pathogen, develop strong cell-mediated immune responses and cutaneous delayed-type hypersensitivity to L. pneumophila antigens, are protected against subsequent lethal aerosol challenge, and are able to clear the bacteria from their lungs. The guinea pig model of L. pneumophila pulmonary infection is as an excellent one for studying general principles of host defense against pulmonary infections caused by intracellular pathogens.