The function of exogenous murine recombinant IL-1 alpha as a T lymphocyte-activating molecule was examined. IL-1 did not induce IL-2 release or responsiveness in purified T cells regardless of their state of activation: unprimed lymphocytes, freshly sensitized lymphocytes, or memory cells derived from the blasts. Nor did IL-1 synergize with mitogens, or with antigens, to stimulate proliferation. For example the combinations of IL-1 plus Ia+ peritoneal macrophages, or IL-1 plus Con A, were less than 5% as effective in triggering T cell growth as a low dose (1%) of dendritic cells. However, when IL-1 was added at the onset of culture, the response to limiting doses of dendritic cells was increased 3- to 10-fold in several systems: the syngeneic and allogeneic MLR, Con A- and periodate-induced polyclonal mitogenesis, and T-dependent antibody formation against foreign red cells. The amplifying effect of IL-1 could be obtained if the dendritic cells but not the responding lymphocytes were exposed to IL-1 before use as accessory cells. Optimal activation of dendritic cells required a dose of 5 U/ml (50 pM) and 18 h of exposure, and was not due to carryover of IL-1 into the lymphocyte culture. IL-2, IL-3, and cachectin/TNF did not amplify dendritic cell function, while IFN-gamma diminished it. The enhanced function of IL-1-treated dendritic cells was due to an enhanced clustering with helper T lymphocytes in the first day of the MLR response. Therefore IL-1 does not seem to act as an activating factor for most peripheral T lymphocytes. Instead, IL-1 enhances the function of accessory dendritic cells and represents the first molecule that has been shown to enhance the immune response at this critical level.