Endothelial cells (EC) were cocultured with allogeneic PBL, CD4+ T cells, or CD8+ T cells, and the degrees of EC activation induced examined by determining patterns of endothelial class I and class II MHC and intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1) expression. Coculture with PBL or CD8+ T cells uniformly increases class I MHC and ICAM-1 expression on all EC within a culture, but induces class II MHC expression on only a subpopulation(s) of EC. This heterogeneous EC response to coculture contrasts with the uniform class II expression on all EC induced by IFN-gamma in replicate wells. CD4+ T cells, when compared to equal numbers of unfractionated PBL or CD8+ T cells, are more effective at increasing class I MHC and ICAM-1 but are unable to induce class II MHC expression. The failure of CD4+ T cells to induce EC class II MHC Ag is not due to insufficient activation of the T cells, as PHA-activated CD4+ T cells also do not induce significant class II expression. In addition, conditioned media (CM) from CD4+ T cell/EC contain greater levels of immunoreactive IFN-gamma than do CM from PBL/EC cocultures. Rather, CD4+ T cells appear to actively inhibit the induction of EC class II Ag but not class I or ICAM-1 by IFN-gamma. Inhibition occurs at the time of induction, as CD4+ T cells are not capable of down-regulating previously induced class II Ag. CM from CD4+/EC (but not PBL/EC) cocultures also inhibits IFN-gamma induction of EC class II MHC expression. The inhibitory activity is generated during CD4+ T cell-EC cell contact, and is enhanced by PHA. The inhibitory activity(ies) of the CD4+/EC-CM is as yet unidentified, and is only minimally reversible by cocktails of neutralizing antibodies directed against TNF-alpha, TNF-beta (lymphotoxin), IFN-alpha and IFN-beta. In conclusion, CD4+ and CD8+ T cells are each effective activators of EC, but the patterns of activation produced by these subsets are quite distinct, largely due to generation of a soluble inhibitor(s) of class II MHC induction during coculture of CD4+ T cells with EC.