Induction of peripheral T cell anergy associated with stimulation through the TCR complex in vivo has been described in mice using chemically modified APC, staphylococcal enterotoxin B, and intact anti-CD3 mAb. In the latter two models, T cell proliferation, IL-2R expression, and lymphokine production have been demonstrated before subsequent induction of hyporesponsiveness, whereas in the former model, these events have not been observed. To further investigate the relationship between mitogenicity and induction of peripheral hyporesponsiveness, mice were treated with either mitogenic intact anti-CD3 mAb or nonmitogenic F(ab')2 fragments of anti-CD3 mAb. T cells from F(ab')2-treated mice demonstrated a selective decrease in helper functions, with minimal effect on CTL function. Specifically, a marked reduction in ability of Th cells to secrete IL-2 when challenged in vitro with mitogen or alloantigen was observed, which persisted for at least 2 mo after mAb administration and which was independent of T cell depletion. Proliferative function was decreased in CD4+ T cells and could not be fully restored with addition of exogenous IL-2. A helper defect was also evident in vivo, in that F(ab')2-treated mice were deficient in their ability to reject MHC-disparate skin grafts, and in vivo administration of IL-2 reconstituted their ability to reject skin grafts normally. In contrast, T cells from mice treated with intact mAb demonstrated a significant decrease in both CTL and helper functions. A long term reduction in TCR expression on CD4+ cells from F(ab')2-treated mice, and on both CD4+ and CD8+ cells from intact mAb-treated mice was observed. These findings demonstrate that peripheral T cell hyporesponsiveness can be induced in vivo by binding an identical epitope on the TCR complex in the presence or absence of initial proliferation, lymphokine secretion, or IL-2R expression, and that binding to the same epitope can result in varying long term effects on T cell function.