Helicobacter pylori is a major cause of chronic antral gastritis and peptic ulcer disease. Further definition is needed of the factors that determine whether infected individuals remain asymptomatic, or ultimately develop ulceration of the mucosa or transformation to malignancy. To explore the possibility that host response to H. pylori may play a role in the outcome of this infection. we have examined humoral and cellular recognition of several H. pylori proteins by seropositive and seronegative persons. A complex mixture of water-extractable cell proteins, which did not include lipopolysaccharide (LPS), was recognized by serum antibodies only in seropositive or infected individuals. IgG from seropositive subjects also bound to urease and to a heat shock protein (hsp)60 that is homologous to the 65-kD mycobacterial heat shock protein, while sera from uninfected individuals were negative. Although antibody responses to these antigens were restricted to seropositive subjects, T cell recognition of the same proteins was found in both seropositive and seronegative subjects. The water extract of H. pylori stimulated peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from all subjects, while purified proteins activated lymphocytes of only some seropositive and seronegative subjects. PBMC that were activated by the H. pylori hsp60 did not respond to the autologous human p60 heat shock protein. These results demonstrate that, in contrast to antibody responses, T cell recognition of H. pylori proteins may occur in non-infected persons. In addition, the data suggest that in these subjects, peripheral lymphocytes that are activated by bacterial heat shock proteins do not mediate tissue damage by recognition of human heat shock homologues.