The coreceptor hypothesis postulates that physical association of CD4 with the TCR is required for effective signaling for T cell activation. A variety of studies has suggested that the coreceptor function of CD4 allows responses to 10- to 100-fold lower levels of peptide:self MHC class II ligand. We test the hypothesis of CD4 physical association with the TCR in two different ways. First, we use a panel of soluble antibodies directed at different TCR epitopes to activate a cloned T cell line, and show that activation by antibodies directed at a particular TCR epitope can be inhibited by anti-CD4 antibodies binding to a certain CD4 epitope. These effects establish that the interaction of CD4 and the TCR occurs in a specific orientation. Second, we use the same system to provide evidence that the physical association of CD4 with the TCR is required for effective tyrosine phosphorylation of the TCR zeta-chain subunit, presumably reflecting delivery of p56lck (lck) to the TCR. Only anti-TCR antibodies that induce physical association of CD4 with the TCR as monitored by cocapping can induce efficient tyrosine-phosphorylation of the TCR zeta-chain, unless second antibodies are used to force CD4 and the TCR to associate. Furthermore, the phosphorylation of the TCR zeta-chain exactly parallesl physical association in time and drug sensitivity. We conclude from these studies that stimuli that drive physical association of CD4 and the TCR strongly favor T cell activation, supporting the coreceptor hypothesis of CD4 function.