In light of the widely accepted view that Ia-restricted L3T4+ T helper cells play a decisive role in controlling the differentiation of Lyt-2+ cells, experiments were designed to examine whether Lyt-2+ cells can respond to antigen in the absence of L3T4+ cells. The results showed that highly purified Lyt-2+ cells gave high primary mixed lymphocyte reactions (MLR) to various class I differences, including both mutant and allelic differences; responses to class II (Ia) differences were generally undetectable with Lyt-2+ cells. The intensity of MLR to class I differences was not affected by addition of anti-L3T4 monoclonal antibodies (mAb) to the cultures or by removing T cells from the stimulator populations. Negative selection experiments showed that Lyt-2+ cells could respond to class I differences across Ia barriers. MLR of purified Lyt-2+ cells peaked on days 3-4 and then fell sharply; background responses with syngeneic stimulators (auto-MLR) were virtually absent. Parallel experiments with purified L3T4+ cells showed that this subset responded in MLR only to class II (Ia) and not class I differences, reached peak responses only on day 6 rather than days 3-4, and often gave high auto-MLR. Within the first 3-4 d of culture, MLR were generally higher with Lyt-2+ cells than L3T4+ cells. Although no evidence could be found that Ia-restricted L3T4+ cells were required for the response of Lyt-2+ cells, presentation of antigen by Ia+ cells appeared to be essential. Thus, responses were ablated by pretreating stimulator cells with anti-Ia mAb plus C'. Significantly the failure of Lyt-2+ cells to respond to anti-Ia plus C'-treated stimulators could not be restored by adding syngeneic spleen cells; addition of IL-2 led to only a minor (15%) restoration of the response. It is suggested that Ia+ cells provide an obligatory second signal required by Lyt-2+ cells.