The functions of antigen-presenting cells (APC) in the initiation of T cell activation was examined by culturing antigen-bearing guinea pig macrophages (M phi) with T cells obtained from antigen-primed animals. Although such antigen-bearing M phi stimulated primed syngeneic T cell DNA synthesis, as assessed by tritiated thymidine incorporation, paraformaldehyde fixation (0.15% for 1 min at 37 degrees C) abolished this capacity. Analysis with acridine orange staining indicated that fixed antigen-bearing M phi could not trigger primed syngeneic T cells to progress from the G0 to the G1 phase of the cell cycle. The addition of control non-antigen-bearing syngeneic or allogeneic M phi but not interleukin 1 or 2 to cultures of T cells and fixed APC permitted a proliferative response. Although the interaction between fixed antigen-bearing M phi and responding T cells was genetically restricted, there was no similar restriction for the supplemental control M phi. In fact, completely Ia-negative endothelial cells (EC) and fibroblasts (FB) could restore antigen responsiveness to cultures of fixed antigen-bearing M phi and syngeneic responding T cells, although they could not directly present antigen. Moreover, metabolically intact accessory cells, including Ia-negative EC and FB, could take up and process antigen to an immunogenic moiety, which fixed Ia-positive M phi could present to primed T cells. These data indicate that recognition of the antigen-Ia complex on an APC is necessary but not sufficient to trigger proliferation of freshly obtained primed T cells. The results additionally support the conclusion that APC carry out at least two separate functions necessary for the initiation of antigen-induced T cell activation. Not only must the APC display the antigen-Ia complex, but it must also convey another required effect. This influence, which apparently involved the establishment of cell to cell contact, was neither Ia nor antigen dependent and could only be provided by a metabolically intact cell. By contrast, genetically restricted antigen presentation could be accomplished by a fixed Ia-positive cell. Only when both the antigen-Ia complex and the influence of an intact accessory cell were provided by the same or different accessory cell were T cells triggered to enter the cell cycle.