Depletion of intracellular glutathione (GSH) inhibits the lectin-induced activation response of human T lymphocytes. GSH-depleted lymphocytes undergo a partial activation response to lectins but fail to undergo blast transformation. Several lines of evidence indicate that the inhibition of lymphocyte activation in GSH-depleted lymphocytes involves relatively late activation events. Firstly, lectin stimulation induces significant 14C-AIB uptake, IL-2 production and expression of IL-2 receptor but a near complete inhibition of 3H-uridine and 3H-thymidine incorporation. Comparable levels of IL-2 production and IL-2 receptor expression are seen in GSH-depleted lymphocytes allowed to recover from GSH depletion during lectin stimulation. However, in the latter case, 3H-uridine and 3H-thymidine incorporation are normal, and activation is completely restored. Exogenous IL-2 cannot restore activation in GSH-depleted lymphocytes. Furthermore, lymphocytes remain highly susceptible to inhibition by GSH depletion even after 48 h of lectin stimulation which is sufficient to induce early activation events in the G0→G1 transition, such as IL-2 receptor expression and IL-2 production. Exogenous GSH partially restores intracellular GSH levels and completely restores lymphocyte activation in GSH-depleted lymphocytes. Despite comparable degrees of GSH depletion, DL-buthionine-SR-sulfoximine and 2-cyclohexene-1-one inhibit lymphocyte activation to different degrees. The inhibition by 2-cyclohexene-1-one is consistently greater than would be predicted based on glutathione depletion per se. We conclude that GSH-dependent processes are important in relatively late steps of the activation sequence characterized by nuclear events with relative sparing of essential early steps in activation, such as IL-2 receptor expression and IL-2 production. The approximate minimal intracellular GSH concentration necessary to sustain a normal activation response is 2 nmol per 107 lymphocytes.