This study identifies type I IFNs as activating cytokines in a serum-free system in which human dendritic cells (DC) were generated from CD34+ progenitor cells. After 14 days of culture in GM-CSF, TNF-alpha, and IL-4, CD34+ progenitors gave rise to a population of large, immature DC expressing CD1a and CD11b but lacking CD14, CD80, CD83, CD86, and CMRF44. During the next 2 wk, this population spontaneously matured into nonadherent, CD1a(low/-), CD11b(low/-), CD14-, CD80+, CD83+, CD86+, CMRF44+ DC with high allostimulatory activity in the MLR. To examine which factors influenced this maturation, 25 different cytokines or factors were added to the immature DC culture. Only type I IFNs (alpha or beta) accelerated this maturation in a dose-dependent manner, so that after only 3 days the majority of large cells acquired the morphology, phenotype, and function characteristics of mature DC. Furthermore, supernatants from cultures containing spontaneously maturing DC revealed low levels of endogenous IFN production. Because of the similarity of the activation of DC in our culture system with the phenotypic and functional changes observed during Langerhans cells activation and migration in vivo, we investigated the effect of IFN-alpha on human Langerhans cell migration. IFN-alpha also activated the migration of human split skin-derived DC, demonstrating that this effect was not limited to DC derived in vitro from hemopoietic progenitor cells. DC activation by type I IFNs represents a novel mechanism of immunomodulation by these cytokines, which could be important during antiviral responses and autoimmune reactions.