CD3/CD8-positive, Leu-7-positive cells comprise about 3 to 5% of PBL in normal individuals, but the proportion of these cells is increased in patients with a variety of diseases including chronic viral infection, Crohn's disease, and AIDS. To study further the function of these cells, the proliferative and cytotoxic responses of highly purified CD8/Leu-7-positive cells were studied in vitro. These cells had low proliferative responses when exposed to PHA or mitogenic anti-CD3 mAb compared to CD8/Leu-7-negative cells, and their proliferative responses were significantly lower after addition of IL-2 or autologous adherent cells. However, the proliferative responses of both Leu-7-positive and Leu-7-negative CD8 cells were similar when stimulated with PHA, Ionomycin, or anti-CD3 in combination with phorbol ester. In addition, CD8/Leu-7-positive cells demonstrated high proliferative responses when exposed to a combination of both PHA and SRBC, and these responses could be inhibited by prior addition of non-stimulating anti-CD2.1 mAb. CD8/Leu-7-positive cells, but not CD8/Leu-7-negative cells, mediated lectin- and anti-CD3-induced cytotoxicity against K562 target cells. Cytotoxicity was in part dependent on the CD2 Ag because it was inhibited by anti-CD2.1 mAb. Finally, when small CD8-positive T cells having low cytotoxic potential were activated with PHA plus SRBC, but not PHA alone, there was significant enhancement of their cytotoxic function. Thus, the CD2 receptor may be an important activation pathway for cytotoxic cells.