Microgram concentrations of immobilized anti-MHC class I (MHC-I) Ab induced proliferation of resting CD3+ T cells from peripheral blood. In contrast, soluble Ab did not activate T cells. Exposure of T cells to immobilized anti-MHC-I Ab for only 24 h was followed by proliferation and development of T cell-mediated cytotoxicity. Immediately following MHC-I ligation, the T cells responded with increased protein tyrosine phosphorylation, with new bands appearing in the SDS-PAGE. Exposure of T cells to immobilized anti-MHC-I Ab for 24 h induced an increased surface expression of the TCR/CD3 and CD28 molecules. MHC-I-induced proliferation of purified T cells was dependent on cellular interactions with non-T cells. Under certain conditions, in which MHC-I was ligated by picogram concentrations of immobilized anti-MHC-I Ab, anti-TCR/CD3 Ab-induced proliferation of T cells was strongly inhibited. These data clearly demonstrate that ligation of the MHC-I complex on T cells may induce both positive and negative signals. Since the physiologic ligands for MHC-I molecules are TCR and the CD8 molecules, our data may suggest that MHC-I molecules are instrumental in cellular interactions between T cells.