The cellular basis of the in vitro and in vivo T cell responses to Staphylococcus enterotoxin B (SEB) has been investigated. The proliferation and cytotoxicity of V beta 8.1,2+,CD4+ and CD8+ T cells were observed in in vitro response to SEB. In primary cytotoxicity assays, CD4+ T cells from control spleens were more active than their CD8+ counterparts, however, in cells derived from SEB-primed mice, CD8+ T cells were dominant in SEB-specific cytotoxicity. In vivo priming with SEB abrogated the response of V beta 8.1,2+,CD4+ T cells despite the fact that these cells exist in significant number. This SEB-specific anergy occurred only in V beta 8.1,2+,CD4+ T cells but not in CD8+ T cells. These findings indicate that the requirement for the induction of antigen-specific anergy is different between CD4+ and CD8+ T cells in post-thymic tolerance, and the existence of coanergic signals for the induction of T cell anergy is suggested.