Monoclonal antibody 9.6 is specific for a 50 kd T cell surface protein (p50) associated with the sheep erythrocyte (E)-receptor on human T lymphocytes. This antibody interferes with many T cell functions. We have examined the effect of antibody 9.6 on lymphocyte proliferation and interleukin 2 (IL 2) production triggered by mitogens, soluble antigens, and alloantigens to elucidate the mechanism(s) of its immunosuppressive action. At concentrations as low as 50 ng/ml, 9.6 suppressed lymphocyte proliferation and the elaboration of IL 2 by T cells stimulated by PHA, alloantigens, or low concentrations of the phorbol ester TPA (less than or equal to ng/ml). Furthermore, in cultures stimulated by a combination of PHA plus TPA, 9.6 did not inhibit the acquisition of IL 2 receptors but inhibited proliferation and IL 2 production. Immunoaffinity-purified IL 2 completely restored lymphocyte proliferation in cultures inhibited by 9.6. Studies of kinetics of inhibition by 9.6 showed that this antibody inhibited lymphocyte proliferation induced by PHA, alloantigen, and PPD even when added at 24, 48, and 72 hr, respectively, after the initiation of these cultures, suggesting that 9.6 does not block lectin binding or antigen recognition by T cells and that it can inhibit lymphocyte proliferation even after cells have undergone one or more rounds of cell division. A dose-response analysis of lymphocyte proliferation induced by PHA or by TPA demonstrated that the degree of inhibition by 9.6 decreased with increasing concentrations of these mitogens. Antibody 9.6 did not inhibit lymphocyte response induced by optimal concentrations of PHA (50 to 100 micrograms/ml; PHA-M) but inhibited proliferation of maximally induced lymphocytes by using a synergistic combination of low concentrations of PHA (5 micrograms/ml, PHA-M) plus TPA (1 ng/ml). Taken together, these findings indicate that 1) 9.6 inhibits lymphocyte proliferation by affecting IL 2 production, 2) 9.6 does not inhibit the acquisition of 9.6 receptors induced by a synergistic combination of PHA plus TPA, and 3) p50 molecules may be involved in multiple pathways of T cell activation.