Since there is a remarkable difference in susceptibility to peroral infection with Toxoplasma gondii among inbred strains of mice, we performed studies to examine the mechanism(s) of this difference in susceptibility. After peroral infection with the ME49 strain of T. gondii, C57BL/6 (B6) mice all died whereas BALB/c mice all survived. At day 7 of infection (when B6 mice began dying), massive necrosis of the villi and mucosal cells in the ilea were observed in B6 but not in BALB/c mice. To analyze the role of T cells in resistance against death and development of necrosis in the ilea after infection, studies were performed using athymic nude and euthymic control B6 and BALB/c mice. Athymic B6 mice all died after infection, but surprisingly, they survived significantly longer than control B6 mice, indicating that T cells predispose to early death in these mice. Necrosis in the ilea was observed in control B6 but not in athymic B6 mice; however, significantly less numbers of tachyzoites were observed in the ilea of the former than the latter mice. These results indicate that necrosis in the ilea of the B6 mice was not due to destruction of tissue by tachyzoites but was mediated by T cells. This deleterious effect of T cells appears to contribute to early death in these mice. In contrast, T cells conferred resistance against death in BALB/c mice but did not cause necrosis in their ilea. To analyze the T cell subset(s) that induces necrosis of the ilea in B6 mice, we examined histological changes of the small intestines after infection of mutant mice deficient in different T cell subsets (with the same H-2b haplotype as B6 mice). Mice deficient in alpha/beta or CD4+ T cells did not develop necrosis in the ilea, whereas wild-type control mice and mice deficient in gamma/delta or CD8+ T cells did, suggesting that the cells that induce necrosis in the ilea after infection are CD4+ alpha/beta T cells. Since interferon (IFN)-gamma has been shown to be critical for survival of BALB/c mice after infection with T. gondii, we examined the role of this cytokine in resistance/susceptibility of infected B6 mice. Treatment of B6 mice with anti-IFN-gamma monoclonal antibody shortly before they developed illness prolonged time to death and prevented necrosis in the ilea in these mice. These results indicate that IFN- gamma mediates necrosis in the ilea of B6 mice after infection. This CD4+ T cell-dependent, IFN-gamma-mediated necrosis of the small intestines appears to be a mechanism that underlies the genetic susceptibility of B6 mice to peroral infection with T. gondii, whereas the same cytokine plays a critical role in the resistance of genetically resistant BALB/c mice.