Because of the low frequency of T cells for any particular soluble protein antigen in unprimed animals, the requirements for naive T cell responses in specific antigens have not been clearly delineated and they have been difficult to study in vitro. We have taken advantage of mice transgenic for the V beta 3/V alpha 11 T cell receptor (TCR), which can recognize a peptide of cytochrome c presented by IEk. 85-90% of CD4+ T cells in these mice express the transgenic TCR, and we show that almost all such V beta 3/V alpha 11 receptor-positive cells have a phenotype characteristic of naive T cells, including expression of high levels of CD45RB, high levels of L-selectin (Mel-14), low levels of CD44 (Pgp-1), and secretion of interleukin 2 (IL-2) as the major cytokine. Naive T cells, separated on the basis of CD45RB high expression, gave vigorous responses (proliferation and IL-2 secretion) to peptide antigen presented in vitro by a mixed antigen-presenting cell population. At least 50% of the T cell population appeared to respond, as assessed by blast transformation, entry into G1, and expression of increased levels of CD44 by 24 h. Significant contributions to the response by contaminating memory CD4+ cells were ruled out by demonstrating that the majority of the CD45RB low, L-selectin low, CD44 high cells did not express the V beta 3/V alpha 11 TCR and responded poorly to antigen. We find that proliferation and IL-2 secretion of the naive CD4 cells is minimal when resting B cells present peptide antigen, and that both splenic and bone marrow-derived macrophages are weak stimulators. Naive T cells did respond well to high numbers of activated B cells. However, dendritic cells were the most potent stimulators of proliferation and IL-2 secretion at low cell numbers, and were far superior inducers of IL-2 at higher numbers. These studies establish that naive CD4 T cells can respond vigorously to soluble antigen and indicate that maximal stimulation can be achieved by presentation of antigen on dendritic cells. This model should prove very useful in further investigations of activation requirements and functional characteristics of naive helper T cells.