Stimulation of T cells by superantigens has been reported to be dependent on the presence of APC where binding to class II molecules is a prerequisite to recognition by the TCR. We examined the response of human T cells and a leukemic T cell line, Jurkat to the superantigen, streptococcal M protein. We show that immobilized or cross-linked streptococcal M protein stimulates Jurkat cells (V beta 8), but not normal purified human T cells, to produce IL-2. Activation of purified T cells by this superantigen required costimulatory signals provided by PMA, IL-1, and IL-6. These cytokines and growth factors alone can induce IL-2 production by T cells; however, proliferation occurred only in the presence of superantigen, which together with PMA, IL-1, and IL-6 induced the expression of IL-2R alpha on T cells. Similar results were obtained when the response of purified T cells to another known superantigen, staphylococcal enterotoxin B were examined, indicating that this phenomenon is not unique to M protein. Superantigens interact with a large number of T cells with particular V beta, and thus provide excellent models for studies of the role of biochemical events and signal transduction in T cell activation. Understanding these events may also explain the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases associated with certain superantigens, such as streptococcal M protein that is thought to be involved in rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease.