T cells oxidized with sodium periodate proliferate polyclonally in response to accessory cells. We confirmed previous work showing that DC are potent stimulators of this response. In addition, the accessory function of unfractionated mouse spleen and spleen adherent cells was markedly reduced after elimination of DC with a specific monoclonal antibody and complement. Therefore oxidative mitogenesis was used as a model to study the mechanism by which DC stimulate T cell proliferative responses. A two-stage mechanism was identified. The first stage occurred during the first 20 h of culture, required live DC, and involved the progressive release of interleukin 2 (IL-2) into the medium and acquisition of responsiveness to this growth factor. The second stage occurred between 20 and 40 h, did not require live DC, and involved DNA synthesis in response to IL-2. Similar events occurred during culture of DC with unmodified T cells (syngeneic MLR) but were quantitatively reduced. The experimental approach was to co-culture DC and T cells for up to 20 h and then kill the DC with specific antibody, or anti-Ia antibody, and complement. Subsequent proliferation was inhibited if the T cells were cultured in fresh medium. However, proliferation was restored when the lymphocytes were cultured in the original DC-T cell medium, or with a crude or a purified preparation of IL-2. IL-2 did not induce the proliferation of T cells that had been cultured in the absence of DC, and did not synergize with viable DC. We conclude that DC induce proliferation by tightly coordinating the release of, and responsiveness to, T cell growth factor or IL-2.