Several studies indicate that the outcome of experimental murine cutaneous leishmaniasis caused by Leishmania major (Lm) is determined by immunological events occurring shortly after infection. These events lead to outgrowth of either protective CD4+ T cells in the C57BL/6 mouse, which cures, or exacerbative cells in the BALB/c mouse, which succumbs to disease. Potential factors influencing the outgrowth of protective or exacerbative T cells include antigen-presenting cells (APC), cytokines, and parasite antigens. An in vitro system, in which one could precisely control the factors shaping early events in the T cell response to Lm, would be very useful. To this end, we have examined the in vitro response of naive lymphocytes to Lm promastigotes. The data presented here show that Lm-specific CD4+ T cell receptor alpha/beta + T cells can be generated in vitro from spleen and lymph node cell populations of naive mice. Furthermore, they can be obtained from the CD44low (unprimed) population of T lymphocytes, indicating that in vitro priming occurs. The ability to generate these T cells is dependent on the presence of live parasites and is not due to a parasite-derived nonspecific T cell mitogen. Restimulation, as assayed by proliferation, requires APC bearing syngeneic I-A. Optimal restimulation of the in vitro derived T cells is achieved only when live promastigotes are used. The T cells do not proliferate in response to a frozen-and-thawed lysate of promastigotes, yet they exhibit mild reactivity to lysates prepared from heat-shocked promastigotes. Furthermore, they do not recognize two predominant antigens on the promastigote surface, lipophosphoglycan and gp63. T cells derived in vitro with Lm show crossreactivity with live L. donovani, less crossreactivity with live L. mexicana, and no crossreactivity with live Bacillus-Calmette-Guerin or live Brugia malayi microfilariae. Finally, these early T cells, whether derived from healing C57BL/6 or nonhealing BALB/c mice, produce interleukin 2 (IL-2), IL-4, and interferon gamma.