Detailed information was sought on the capacity of purified B6 L3T4+ cells to elicit lethal graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) in irradiated class II-different class I-identical (C57BL/6 (B6) x bm 12)F1 hosts. When B6 L3T4+ cells were transferred in small doses (10(5) to 10(6) together with donor bone marrow (BM) cells, the recipients all developed acute lethal GVHD and most of the mice died within 2 wk, probably from gut damage; this syndrome was conspicuous only in mice treated with very heavy irradiation, i.e., 1000 rad. In marked contrast to L3T4+ cells given in small doses, transfer of large doses of B6 L3T4+ cells to heavily irradiated (B6 x bm 12)F1 hosts paradoxically resulted in only limited mortality: most of the recipients survived for greater than 6 mo and manifested little or no evidence of ill health. It is suggested that the capacity of large doses of L3T4+ cells to protect mice against lethal GVHD is a reflection of T helper function: the cellular immunity provided by the donor L3T4+ cells enables the host to repel pathogens entering through damaged mucosal surfaces, with the result that GVHD becomes sublethal. The protective function of L3T4+ cells in the B6----bm 12 combination was only seen in hosts given donor BM. With transfer of donor L3T4+ cells plus host BM, even lightly irradiated recipients died rapidly from hemopoietic failure. Because this syndrome failed to occur in mice given a mixture of donor and host BM, it would appear that L3T4+ cells destroyed host lymphohemopoietic cells by direct cytotoxicity rather than via a bystander effect.