Prior ultraviolet (UV) irradiation of the site of application of hapten on murine skin reduces contact sensitization, impairs the ability of dendritic cells in the draining lymph nodes (DLN) to present antigen, and leads to development of hapten-specific suppressor T lymphocytes. We tested the hypothesis that UV-induced DNA damage plays a role in the impaired antigen-presenting activity of DLN cells. First, we assessed the location and persistence of cells containing DNA damage. A monoclonal antibody specific for cyclobutyl pyrimidine dimers (CPD) was used to identify UV-damaged cells in the skin and DLN of C3H mice exposed to UV radiation. Cells containing CPD were present in the epidermis, dermis, and DLN and persisted, particularly in the dermis, for at least 4 d after UV irradiation. When fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC) was applied to UV-exposed skin, the DLN contained cells that were Ia+, FITC+, and CPD+; such cells from mice sensitized 3 d after UV irradiation exhibited reduced antigen-presenting function in vivo. We then assessed the role of DNA damage in UV-induced modulation of antigen-presenting cell (APC) function by using a novel method of increasing DNA repair in mouse skin in vivo. Liposomes containing T4 endonuclease V (T4N5) were applied to the site of UV exposure immediately after irradiation. This treatment prevented the impairment in APC function and reduced the number of CPD+ cells in the DLN of UV-irradiated mice. Treatment of unirradiated skin with T4N5 in liposomes or treatment of UV-irradiated skin with liposomes containing heat-inactivated T4N5 did not restore immune function. These studies demonstrate that cutaneous immune cells sustain DNA damage in vivo that persists for several days, and that FITC sensitization causes the migration of these to the DLN, which exhibits impaired APC function. Further, they support the hypothesis that DNA damage is an essential initiator of one or more of the steps involved in impaired APC function after UV irradiation.