Dendritic cells (DC) represent potent antigen-presenting cells for the induction of T cell-dependent immune responses. Previous work on antigen uptake and presentation by human DC is based largely on studies of blood DC that have been cultured for various periods of time before analysis. These cultured cells may therefore have undergone a maturation process from precursors that have different capacities for antigen capture and presentation. We have now used immunoelectron microscopy and antigen presentation assays to compare freshly isolated DC (f-DC) and cultured DC (c-DC). f-DC display a round appearance, whereas c-DC display characteristic long processes. c-DC express much more cell surface major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II than f-DC. The uptake of colloidal gold-labeled bovine serum albumin (BSA), however, is greater in f-DC, as is the presentation of 65-kD heat shock protein to T cell clones. The most striking discovery is that the majority of MHC class II molecules in both f-DC and c-DC occur in intracellular vacuoles with a complex shape (multivesicular and multilaminar). These MHC class II enriched compartments (MIIC) represent the site to which BSA is transported within 30 min. Although MIIC appear as more dense structures with less MHC class II molecules in f-DC than c-DC, the marker characteristics are very similar. The MIIC in both types of DC are acidic, contain invariant chain, and express the recently described HLA-DM molecule that can contribute to antigen presentation. CD19+ peripheral blood B cells have fewer MIIC and surface MHC class II expression than DCs, while monocytes had low levels of MIIC and surface MHC class II. These results demonstrate in dendritic cells the elaborate development of MIIC expressing several of the components that are required for efficient antigen presentation.