We have evaluated the capacity of dendritic cells to function as antigen-presenting cells (APCs) for influenza and have examined their mechanism of action. Virus-pulsed dendritic cells were 100 times more efficient than bulk spleen cells in stimulating cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) formation. The induction of CTLs required neither exogenous lymphokines nor APCs in the responding T cell population. Infectious virus entered dendritic cells through intracellular acidic vacuoles and directed the synthesis of several viral proteins. If ultraviolet (UV)-inactivated or bromelain-treated viruses were used, viral protein synthesis could not be detected, and there was poor induction of CTLs. This indicated that dendritic cells were not capable of processing noninfectious virus onto major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules. However, UV-inactivated and bromelain-treated viruses were presented efficiently to class II-restricted CD4+ T cells. The CD4+ T cells crossreacted with different strains of influenza and markedly amplified CTL formation. Cell lines that lacked MHC class II, and consequently the capacity to stimulate CD4+ T cells, failed to induce CTLs unless helper lymphokines were added. Similarly, dendritic cells pulsed with the MHC class I-restricted nucleoprotein 147-155 peptide were poor stimulators in the absence of exogenous helper factors. We conclude that the function of dendritic cells as APCs for the generation of virus-specific CTLs in vitro depends measurably upon: (a) charging class I molecules with peptides derived from endogenously synthesized viral antigens, and (b) stimulating a strong CD4+ helper T cell response.