A series of heavy chain isotype switch-variant anti-CD3 monoclonal antibodies (mAb) was used to study the proliferation requirements of purified T cells. None of the variant antibodies was able by itself to induce proliferation. In the presence of exogenous interleukin 2 (IL-2) strong mitogenesis was observed upon stimulation with epsilon-anti-CD3, whereas gamma 1, gamma 2b, gamma 2a, and alpha-anti-CD3 failed to induce T cell proliferation. All variant antibodies induced vigorous proliferation in combination with phorbol myristate acetate. Purified T cells, cultured in the presence of epsilon-anti-CD3, in the absence of IL-2, did not express detectable amounts of TAC-antigen (CD25). The binding of the variant antibodies to the CD3 antigen was evaluated in cross-blocking experiments. It was demonstrated that the epsilon-anti-CD3 antibody, in comparison with the other variant mAb, has a relatively low avidity for the CD3 antigen. In modulation experiments, the IgE variant antibody was unable to induce a substantial loss of CD3 antigen. T cell triggering was investigated at the level of Ca2+ mobilization by means of the dye Indo-1. In contrast to the gamma 1, gamma 2b, gamma 2a, and alpha mAb, which induced a rapid and high rise in the free intracellular calcium level, epsilon-anti-CD3 caused a slow and low rise. These studies indicate that the epsilon-anti-CD3 antibody has a low avidity for the CD3 antigen, compared with the other variant mAb, possibly as a result of monovalent binding. Apparently, the avidity and/or valency of CD3 antigen binding not only has a major influence on CD3 modulation and anti-CD3-induced Ca2+ mobilization, but also sets T cell requirements for IL-2 responsiveness.