MRL/Mp-lpr/lpr (MRL/lpr) mice develop marked lymphadenopathy, characterized predominantly by Thy1+CD3+CD4-CD8- cells ("double negative T cells"; DNT). It is paradoxical that DNT proliferate poorly in vitro when stimulated through CD3 or by mitogens. The hamster mAb H1.2F3, raised against dendritic epidermal DNT, recognizes a very early activation (VEA) Ag, which is generally absent on resting cells but expressed soon after T cell activation with ConA or phorbol ester. Cross-linking of this disulfide-linked dimer in the presence of APC and phorbol ester induces proliferation of normal T cells. Therefore, we tested to see whether MRL/lpr DNT expressed this Ag and whether it might play a role in DNT expansion. Unmanipulated cells from enlarged MRL/lpr lymph nodes expressed VEA in an age-dependent manner, peaking at 3 to 4 mo of age. Only limited expression in a small subset of lymphocytes from the congenic MRL/Mp(-)+/+ strain was seen. VEA expression on freshly harvested MRL/lpr lymphocytes was seen mainly on DNT, yet double staining of the DNT for VEA Ag and three other markers known to be present on lpr DNT showed that the DNT were a heterogeneous population. In addition, some CD4+ T cells expressed VEA Ag. Despite their constitutive VEA Ag expression, MRL/lpr DNT showed no proliferative response to cross-linking with the H1.2F3 antibody. Furthermore, unlike normal T cells, they failed to respond to the antibody even when phorbol ester was added. The addition of supplementary cytokines did not correct this defect. These studies indicate that MRL/lpr DNT constitutively and aberrantly express VEA but do not respond when it is cross-linked. These abnormalities may result from the failure to express Fas, the recently reported apoptosis-inducing receptor defective in lpr mice.