Dendritic cells (DC) from human and mouse thymus were compared. DC from both sources were isolated by digestion with collagenase, disruption of cellular complexes with a chelating agent, selection of light density cells, immunomagnetic bead depletion of other cell types (without depletion with anti-CD4 or anti-CD8) and finally sorting for cells expressing high levels of class II MHC. Yields of DC from human and mouse thymus were comparable (around 1 DC/10(3) thymocytes), they displayed similar DC morphology, and both showed strong expression of CD11c. DC from the human thymus all expressed very high levels of CD4 but low levels of CD8. In contrast, DC from the mouse thymus expressed high levels of CD8 but only low levels of CD4. Human thymic DC were also substantially larger than mouse thymic DC. The biological significance of CD4 and CD8 expression by DC is discussed in view of this major species difference and the possibility that human thymic DC may be targets for HIV infection.