2-acetyl-4(5)-(1,2,3,4-tetrahydroxybutyl)imidazole (THI) is an immunosuppressive component of caramel food colouring that causes lymphopenia in mice and rats by an unknown mechanism. In this study we investigated some of the affects of THI on the murine immune system. Initially we showed that splenic T lymphocytes from mice treated with 50 mg/l THI in their drinking water were unable to launch a mixed lymphocyte reaction (MLR) against allogeneic stimulator cells, and had decreased and delayed interleukin-2 (IL-2) production. However, these T cells exhibited a normal proliferative response to concanavalin A (Con A), immobilized anti-CD3 monoclonal antibody (mAb) and anti-CD3 plus anti-CD28 mAb. Furthermore, the MLR response could be restored by the addition of IL-2 to the MLR culture. Homing studies using intravenous injection of fluorescence-labelled splenocytes showed that THI treatment decreased absolute numbers of labelled T and B lymphocytes in the blood and the spleen. Furthermore, these labelled cells reappeared in the blood and the spleen when mice were taken off THI, indicating that lymphocyte recirculation and splenic homing were modified reversibly by THI treatment. Cessation of THI treatment also resulted in a rapid reappearance of MLR responsiveness in the spleen, indicating that THI treatment does not functionally impair recirculating T cells. Collectively these data are compatible with the concept that a rapidly recirculating population of T cells, which produce IL-2 in an allogeneic MLR, are lost from the blood and spleen following THI treatment, and are sequestered in other, yet to be identified, tissues.