Increasing evidence indicates that the capacity to induce protective Th1 immune responses is impaired in early childhood, an observation that can be partially attributed to deficiencies in antigen-presenting-cell function. Synthesis of interleukin 12 (IL-12), a key Th1-trophic cytokine, is markedly reduced in the neonatal period, though there is a paucity of knowledge concerning the ontogeny of IL-12-synthetic capacity throughout the childhood years. Hence, we examined the production of bioactive IL-12 p70 by circulating mononuclear cells in a population of healthy individuals. As expected, the capacity to synthesize IL-12 p70 in response to either lipopolysaccharide or heat-killed Staphylococcus aureus was markedly impaired at birth, even after priming of cells with gamma interferon. Surprisingly however, IL-12 p70 synthesis by peripheral blood mononuclear cells from both 5- and 12-year-old children was still substantially below that seen in adults, and this did not appear to be related to excessive production of IL-10. In contrast, dendritic cells from adults and neonates, derived from monocytes with granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor and IL-4, synthesized equivalent amounts of IL-12 p70 in response to microbial stimulation. This indicates that the impaired capacity for IL-12 synthesis in childhood is not an intrinsic property of circulating mononuclear cells but rather can be readily overcome in response to appropriate maturational stimuli. Because IL-12 arose predominantly from circulating HLA-DR+ cells that lacked B-cell- and monocyte-specific markers, we propose that the slow maturation of IL-12-synthetic capacity in the childhood years can be attributed to deficiencies in the number and/or function of dendritic cells.