Antibodies against the T3-antigen receptor complex can activate the human T cell line, Jurkat, to produce interleukin 2 (2-5). This activation is initiated by a receptor-mediated increase in the concentration of free cytoplasmic calcium ions [Ca2+]i (3, 4). In this communication, we investigate the mechanism by which the receptor complex increases [Ca2+ )i in Jurkat cells. The initial receptor-mediated change in [Ca2+]i can occur when extracellular Ca2+ is depleted by EGTA. Perturbation of the T cell antigen receptor, therefore, generates a signal which mobilizes Ca2+ from intracellular stores. As inositol trisphosphate appears to function as such a signal for certain hormone receptors, we measured the levels of inositol trisphosphate and of the other inositol phosphate compounds in Jurkat. Antibodies to either the antigen receptor heterodimer or T3 determinants result in marked elevations of all three inositol phosphates. These changes in inositol phosphates are not secondary to the receptor-mediated increases in [Ca2+]i as demonstrated by the inability of the Ca2+ ionophore, ionomycin, to affect the levels of any of these compounds. In concentrations between 0.1 and 1 microM, purified inositol trisphosphate releases Ca2+ from permeabilized Jurkat cells. Taken together, these data indicate that, during activation, perturbation of the T3-antigen receptor complex generates inositol trisphosphate. This compound functions as an intracellular signal to release Ca2+ from intracellular stores, leading to increases in [Ca2+]i.