The interaction of certain mAbs with the Thy-1 molecules of murine T lymphocytes leads to cell activation and proliferation. To examine the signal transduction mechanism underlying this process and to determine what, if any, relationship exists between Thy-1-dependent triggering and T cell activation mediated through the T3-antigen receptor (T3-Ti) complex, a genomic clone of murine Thy-1.2 was isolated and transfected into the human T cell tumor, Jurkat. The transfected gene was actively transcribed in these human cells and high levels of Thy-1.2 glycoprotein were found on the cell membrane. Although certain mAbs to Thy-1.2 failed to bind to the Thy-1 transfected Jurkat cells, several known mitogenic anti-Thy-1 mAbs did react, and in the presence of phorbol ester, induced IL-2 secretion. One Thy-1+ transfectant out of five failed to produce IL-2 in response to anti-T3/Ti antibodies even though it retained the ability to increase intracytoplasmic calcium concentration [( Ca2+]i) in response to these ligands. A Thy-1 negative revertant of this cell regained anti-T3/Ti reactivity, suggesting a regulatory defect in signal transmission via T3/Ti in the original transfectant. These data confirm the ability of Thy-1 to act as an activation receptor for T cells. They reveal a potential role for changes in [Ca2+]i in this process, in common with other pathways of T cell activation, but also indicate a more complex series of events is involved.