Dendritic cells (DCs) serve as a link between the innate and adaptive immune systems. The activation state of DCs is crucial in this role. However, when DCs are isolated from lymphoid tissues, purified and placed in culture they undergo 'spontaneous' activation. The basis of this was explored, using up-regulation of DC surface MHC II, CD40, CD80 and CD86 as indicators of DC activation. No evidence was found for DC damage during isolation or for microbial products causing the activation. The culture activation of spleen DCs differed from that of Langerhans cells when released from E-cadherin-mediated adhesions, since E-cadherin was not detected and activation still occurred with beta-catenin null DCs. Much of the activation could be attributed to DC-DC interactions. Although increases in surface MHC II levels occurred under all culture conditions tested, the increase in expression of CD40, CD80 and CD86 was much less under culture conditions where such interactions were minimised. DC-to-DC contact under the artificial conditions of high DC concentration in culture induced the production of soluble factors and these, in turn, induced the up-regulation of co-stimulatory molecules on the DC surface.