We utilized a system of sequential in vitro cell culture and adoptive transfer to investigate the sequence of events which lead to the activation of effector cells responsible for the induction of experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) in Lewis rats. This procedure involves only naive (nonimmune) rats, and eliminates the requirement for adjuvants. Spleen cells (SpC) from naive donors were sensitized in vitro to myelin basic protein (BP), then transferred to intermediate (primary) hosts. Although these recipients did not develop EAE, they were primed for disease because they exhibited accelerated onset of active EAE when challenged with BP in adjuvant. Moreover, SpC from nonchallenged primary recipients transferred EAE to secondary recipients subsequent to in vitro exposure to antigen. The cells from the naive cultures which primed the intermediate recipients were radioresistant (1500 R); other studies have indicated that these are macrophages. In contrast, the cells which transferred EAE to the secondary recipients were radiation-sensitive T lymphoblasts. The finding that these cells also elicit disease in lethally irradiated (850 R) secondary recipients suggests that the transferred cells either are the actual effector cells of EAE or induce disease in collaboration only with radioresistant host cells.