In an attempt to determine the clonogenic properties of human peripheral blood T cells, we have developed a limiting dilution microculture system using phytohemagglutinin (PHA) as T cell activator and supernatant from PHA-stimulated spleen cultures as a source of T cell growth factors. The frequencies of cells capable of extensive proliferation under these culture conditions were 0.52-0.73, 0.98-1.11, and less than 0.02 in peripheral blood mononuclear, E-rosette-positive, and E-rosette-negative cell populations, respectively. The clonogenic potential of virtually all T cells was confirmed in experiments using single cells isolated by micromanipulation. Clone size ranged between 5 and 30 X 10(4) cells on day 14 of culture. The same microculture system was used to determine the precursor frequency of all cytolytic T lymphocytes (CTL-P). As assessed by a lectin-dependent 51Cr release assay, the CTL-P frequency in purified T cell populations ranged between 0.30 and 0.34. In comparison, the precursor frequency of T cells capable of lysing K562 target cells was ranging between 0.14 and 0.16. Parallel analysis of individual clonal cultures for both lytic activities showed that 50% of the clones exhibiting lectin-dependent lysis were also active against K562 target cells. All of the proliferating clones expressed HLA-DR antigens, although to a varying degree as assessed by flow cytofluorometry. Given the high cloning efficiency of this culture system, it appears now possible to determine the precursor frequencies of the various classes of functional cells in T cell populations.