The presence of a high number of activated T cells in the bloodstream and spontaneous proliferation of peripheral blood mononuclear cells in vitro are striking characteristics of human T-cell leukemia virus type I (HTLV-I) infection. The HTLV-I regulatory protein Tax and the envelope protein gp46 have been implicated in mediating the activation process. In this study, HTLV-I-producing cell lines and purified virus from the cell lines were examined for the ability to activate peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBLs) and Jurkat cells. Antisera and monoclonal antibodies against several cellular adhesion proteins involved in T-cell activation and against viral proteins were used to identify which molecules may be participating in the activation process. First, neither virus from a T-cell line, MT2, nor virus produced from the human osteosarcoma cell line HOS/PL was able to induce PBLs to proliferate. In contrast, both fixed and irradiated HTLV-I-producing T-cell lines induced proliferation of PBLs; HOS/PL cells did not activate PBLs. Second, HTLV-I-positive T-cell lines were capable of activating interleukin- 2 mRNA expression in Jurkat cells. Induction of interleukin-2 expression was inhibited by anti-CD2 and anti-lymphocyte function-associated antigen 3 (LFA- 3) monoclonal antibodies but not anti-human leukocyte antigen-DR, anti-CD4, anti-LFA-1, or anti-intercellular adhesion molecule 1. Similar results were obtained with PBLs as the responder cells. Furthermore, monoclonal antibodies and antisera against various regions of the HTLV-I envelope proteins gp46 and gp21 as well as p40(tax) did not block activation. These data indicate that HTLV-I viral particles are not intrinsically mitogenic and that infection of target T cells is not necessary for activation. Instead, the mitogenic activity is restricted to virus-producing T cells, requires cell-to-cell contact, and may be mediated through the LFA-3/CD2 activation pathway.