- Antigen binding to its specific receptor on T cells initiates a series of intracellular events that result in cell differentiation, activation, and clonal expansion. However, the mechanism by which these antigen-occupied receptors induce the transmembrane signal transduction needs clarification. Because this mechanism appears to involve an increase in intracellular free Ca2+ concentration and activation of protein kinase C (PKC), we tested the effect of Ca2+ ionophores and PKC activators on alloantigen-specific primary mixed leukocyte culture cells. Both calcium ionophores, A23187 and ionomycin, in conjunction with 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol 13-acetate (TPA) mimicked the effect of antigen or interleukin 2 (IL 2) by inducing strong proliferative and alloantigen-specific cytotoxic responses. In addition, Ca2+ ionophore and TPA induced IL 2 receptor expression and IL 2 secretion. The capacity of other phorbol esters or a non-phorbol ester tumor promoter (teleocidin) to replace TPA in induction of cell activation correlated with their ability to bind to and to activate PKC. In addition, the synergistic effect of Ca2+ ionophore and TPA was blocked by either a Ca2+ chelator (EGTA) or cAMP, which is thought to inhibit phosphatidylinositol metabolism. To determine whether the induction of this cytotoxic activity was mediated by a direct effect of Ca2+ ionophore and TPA on cytotoxic T (Tc) cells or was secondary to IL 2 secretion by activated helper T (Th) cells, we tested the effect of Ca2+ ionophore and TPA on isolated populations of cloned, alloantigen-specific Th and Tc cells. Both agents induced cell proliferation and IL 2 production by Th cells, but not by Tc cells. Activation of mixed clones of Th and Tc cells, but not of Tc cells alone, resulted in cytotoxic activity, an effect that could be blocked by anti-IL 2 receptor antibodies. The results thus demonstrate that an increased concentration of intracellular Ca2+ in conjunction with PKC activation can bypass the signal provided by antigen-receptor interaction on Th cells, but does not substitute for IL 2 in activating cytotoxicity by isolated Tc cells.