The effects of purified recombinant interleukin 7 (IL-7) on the generation of cytolytic T lymphocytes (CTL) in mixed lymphocyte culture (MLC) and on the induction of lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) cells in autologous cultures of human peripheral blood mononuclear cells were investigated. IL-7 was found to induce the generation of both CTL and LAK cells in bulk cultures. The appearance of peak CTL activity in MLC established with exogenous IL-7 was delayed in comparison with replicate cultures containing exogenous IL-2, but both cytokines stimulated quantitatively similar levels of antigen-specific lytic activity. An IL-2-neutralizing antiserum inhibited substantially, but not completely, the effect of IL-7 on CTL generation, implying the existence of both an indirect component of IL-7 activity via IL-2 utilization, as well as an IL-2-independent component. Cell surface phenotypic analysis of IL-2- or IL-7-generated CTL effector cells revealed that CD8+ cells were responsible for the vast majority of lytic activity. Limiting dilution analysis (LDA) revealed that essentially identical frequencies of CTL precursors (CTL-P) were capable of clonal expansion and/or differentiation in the presence of exogenous IL-2, IL-4, or IL-7, supporting the concept that all three of these cytokines are capable of exerting a major influence on T cell growth and differentiation. Approximately half of the CTL-P that responded in IL-7-supplemented LDA cultures did so in an IL-2-independent manner. IL-7 stimulated the development of LAK cells in autologous bulk cultures, but only weakly in comparison with IL-2. In contrast to its effects on CTL generation, the induction of LAK cells by IL-7 was virtually independent of IL-2. LAK cells induced by IL-7, like those induced by IL-2, were phenotypically heterogeneous and included CD8+, CD56+, and gamma/delta+ cells. Limiting dilution analysis indicated that IL-2 stimulated fivefold more LAK-P than IL-7 and 220-fold more than IL-4. Collectively, these data suggest that IL-7 has potent regulatory effects on human cytolytic cell populations and, either alone or in combination with other cytokines, could be important for the in vitro expansion of cells for adoptive immunotherapy.