The major surface glycoinositolphospholipid (GIPL) from Trypanosoma cruzi was purified and assessed in mouse T cell function assays. Purified GIPLs from T. cruzi strains Y and G, but not from a plant trypanosomatid (Phytomonas serpens), markedly blocked in vitro CD4+ and CD8+ T cell mitogenesis induced by bacterial superantigen and anti-TCR;CD3 Abs. Secretion of IL-2, but not of IL-4, bioactivity, was reduced by GIPLs. T. cruzi, but not P. serpens, GIPL also blocked recall cellular responses to T. cruiz. GIPLs from T. cruzi, but not from P. serpens, blocked in vivo regional lymph node T cell activation induced by anti-CD3 mAb. Blockage led to loss of IL-2 responsiveness, with inhibition of CD25 expression on both CD4+ and CD8+ subsets. Isolated phosphoinositol oligosaccharides from GIPLs had no effect on in vitro CD4+ T cell mitogenesis. Isolated ceramide from T. cruzi GIPLs contained mainly N-lignoceroyldihydrosphingosine and blocked CD4+ T cell activation in vitro with the same potency as the intact GIPL. Standard N-palmitoylsphingosine, but not N-palmitoyldihydrosphingosine, blocked CD4+ T cell mitogenesis. A longer fatty acid chain, such as in standard N-lignoceroyldihydrosphingosine, or in the natural trypanosomal GIPL-derived ceramide, however, conferred full inhibitory effects on CD4+ T cells. These results demonstrate that T. cruzi GIPL has T cell immunomodulatory activity in vitro and in vivo, and that this novel activity maps to the ceramide domain. These findings could have implications for immunologic disturbances induced in the host by the causative agent of Chagas' disease.