Human C3a and the synthetic octapeptide C3a (70-77), which retains the activities of an anaphylatoxin, inhibit in a concentration-dependent manner the generation of leukocyte inhibitory factor (LIF) activity by human mononuclear leukocytes and T lymphocytes cultured with the mitogens phytohemagglutinin (PHA) or concanavalin A (Con A) or the antigen streptokinase-streptodornase (SK-SD). The generation of LIF activity was inhibited by 50% by 10(-8) M C3a or C3a(70-77) with PHA or Con A as the stimulus, whereas a more than 10-fold higher concentration of C3a(70-77) than C3a was required to achieve the same level of suppression with SK-SD as the stimulus. Similar concentrations of C3a(70-77) inhibited to the same extent the migration of T lymphocytes stimulated by alpha-thioglycerol of Con A. Neither C3a nor C3a(70-77) altered significantly the uptake of [3H]thymidine by human mononuclear cells exposed to PHA, Con A, or SK-SD. The capacity of C3a(70-77)-Sepharose,m but not Sepharose alone, to adsorb or inactivate mononuclear leukocytes required for the generation of LIF activity established a direct interaction. Analysis of the lymphocytes in the effluent from C3a(70-77)-Sepharose columns, using monoclonal antibodies to surface antigens, showed a selective depletion of the helper/inducer population of lymphocytes. C3a might represent an important mediator of the functionally selective regulation of human T lymphocyte activities by the complement system.