Increased expression of major histocompatibility complex class II (Ia) antigens on vascular endothelium is a common observation in allografts undergoing acute rejection. This phenomenon is generally ascribed to the host immune response directed against graft alloantigens, but its cellular and molecular basis are incompletely understood. In the present study we show that constitutively Ia-negative human microvascular endothelial cells (EC) can be induced to express surface class II human leukocyte antigens shortly after exposure to allogeneic lymphocytes in vitro. CD16+ (natural killer) and CD8+ (cytotoxic/suppressor) lymphocytes were efficient in triggering Ia antigen expression by EC, whereas CD4+ (helper/inducer) lymphocytes induced EC Ia expression only if cultured in the presence of autologous monocytes. Binding of lymphocytes to EC was shown to be essential for the subsequent induction of EC Ia, and anti-CD18 (LFA-1) antibody, which blocks lymphocyte-EC adhesion, was the only antibody of a panel of antilymphocyte antibodies that completely blocked the induction of EC Ia. Antibodies to interferon-gamma, which is a potent inducer of EC Ia, and to the CD3 T cell-surface antigen partly inhibited the induction of EC Ia by T cells, but neither antibody had any effect on Ia induction mediated by CD16+ cells, suggesting that T cells and natural killer cells utilize different mechanisms to induce Ia on EC. When combined with data from other laboratories indicating that Ia+ but not Ia- EC stimulate allogeneic T cell proliferation and cytotoxicity, our results suggest that the binding of EC by lymphocyte subpopulations followed by the induction of Ia antigen may represent the initial stage of incompatible allograft rejection.