The natural killer T (NKT) cell ligand alpha-galactosylceramide (alpha-GalCer) exhibits profound antitumor activities in vivo that resemble interleukin (IL)-12-mediated antitumor activities. Because of these similarities between the activities of alpha-GalCer and IL-12, we investigated the involvement of IL-12 in the activation of NKT cells by alpha-GalCer. We first established, using purified subsets of various lymphocyte populations, that alpha-GalCer selectively activates NKT cells for production of interferon (IFN)-gamma. Production of IFN-gamma by NKT cells in response to alpha-GalCer required IL-12 produced by dendritic cells (DCs) and direct contact between NKT cells and DCs through CD40/CD40 ligand interactions. Moreover, alpha-GalCer strongly induced the expression of IL-12 receptor on NKT cells from wild-type but not CD1(-/-) or Valpha14(-/-) mice. This effect of alpha-GalCer required the production of IFN-gamma by NKT cells and production of IL-12 by DCs. Finally, we showed that treatment of mice with suboptimal doses of alpha-GalCer together with suboptimal doses of IL-12 resulted in strongly enhanced natural killing activity and IFN-gamma production. Collectively, these findings indicate an important role for DC-produced IL-12 in the activation of NKT cells by alpha-GalCer and suggest that NKT cells may be able to condition DCs for subsequent immune responses. Our results also suggest a novel approach for immunotherapy of cancer.