In vitro studies implicate a molecular link between inflammatory mononuclear cells and alterations in fibroblast growth and function. We have extended these observations in an experimental animal model in which we document the T cell-dependence of fibrosis that occurs after activation of the cell-mediated immune system by specific antigen. Chronic granulomatous lesions were induced in the livers of susceptible rats by the intraperitoneal injection of group A streptococcal cell walls (SCW). The development of granulomas that are composed primarily of lymphocytes and macrophages was associated with the recruitment and proliferation of connective tissue cells. Furthermore, this expanded population of fibroblasts generated a collagenous structure consisting primarily of types I and III collagen around the granuloma. The progression of these chronic inflammatory lesions leads to the formation of fibrotic nodules throughout the livers of the treated animals. Intact granulomas, as well as mononuclear cells derived from the granulomas, spontaneously elaborated a soluble factor(s) that stimulates fibroblast proliferation. Physicochemical analysis revealed that the primary granuloma-derived peak of fibroblast growth activity corresponded to an apparent Mr of 40,000, which is consistent with a previously described T lymphocyte--derived fibroblast-activating factor (FAF) in guinea pig and human. Furthermore, the fibrosis that occurs in the granuloma is apparently T cell--dependent, since no fibrotic lesions developed in SCW-injected athymic nude rats nor in SCW-injected animals treated with the T cell inhibitor, cyclosporin A (CsA). Mononuclear cells from neither of these functionally T cell--deficient animals could generate FAF activity. These data show a role for T lymphocyte--derived cytokines in the development of hepatic fibrosis in SCW-injected rats.