The predominant T lymphocytes that accumulate in the peripheral lymphoid tissues of mice homozygous for the lpr gene bear the phenotype CD3+CD4-CD8-. By certain functional criteria these cells would appear to have impaired CD3-mediated signal transduction, in that they do not respond to alloantigen and produce little if any detectable IL-2 or other lymphokines. However, the signal pathway appears adequate for achieving other T cell functions, including induction of high affinity IL-2R, and thymic deletion. To clarify the basis of this seeming discrepancy, we examined transmembrane signal transduction in T cell subsets of lpr/lpr (lpr) and +/+ mice, as defined by increased [Ca2+]i and the generation of inositol phosphates (InsPs). Stimulation of lpr CD4-CD8- cells with anti-CD3 antibody produced prompt and sustained increases in the concentration of [C2+]i and in InsPs. Similar responses occurred in mature T cells from lpr and +/+ mice, except for the somewhat slower kinetics of their increased [Ca2+]i. In marked distinction to the anti-CD2-mediated response, Con A, even in high doses, could not stimulate any increase of [Ca2+]i in lpr CD4-CD8- cells, and only modest increases in InsPs. Mature T cells, whether of lpr or +/+ origin, yielded normal increased [Ca2+]i with Con A. The reason for the differences in signal transduction between anti-CD3 and Con A stimulation of lpr CD4-CD8- cells may relate to the absence of surface structures on these immature T cells that are required for activation by Con A but not by anti-CD3. The data demonstrate that the CD3 complex in lpr CD4-CD8- T cells can couple to phospholipase C to hydrolyze phosphoinositides. These activation properties of lpr CD4-CD8- T cells have interesting functional parallels to thymocytes at the time of thymic selection, as well as tolerance induction of mature T lymphocytes.