A procedure has been developed to isolate dendritic cells to a high degree of purity from fresh blood. Prior enrichment methods have relied upon an initial 1-2-d culture period. Purified fresh isolates lack the characteristic morphology, phenotype, and immunostimulatory function of dendritic cells. The purified cells have the appearance of medium sized lymphocytes and express substantial levels of CD4, but lack the T cell molecules CD3, CD8, and T cell receptor. When placed in culture, the cells mature in a manner resembling the previously described, cytokine-dependent maturation of epidermal dendritic cells (Langerhans cells). The cells enlarge and exhibit many cell processes, express much higher levels of major histocompatibility complex class II and a panel of accessory molecules for T cell activation, and become potent stimulators of the mixed leukocyte reaction. Among the many changes during this maturation process are a fall in CD4 and the appearance of high levels of B7/BB1, the costimulator for enhanced interleukin 2 production in T cells. These changes are not associated with cell proliferation, but are dependent upon the addition of monocyte-conditioned medium. We suggest that the freshly isolated CD4-positive blood dendritic cells are recent migrants from the bone marrow, and that subsequent maturation of the lineage occurs in tissues in situ upon appropriate exposure to cytokines.