The Fas gene encodes a cell surface molecule that is a member of the the nerve growth factor/tumor necrosis factor receptor family of proteins and can mediate programmed cell death (apoptosis) in certain transformed cell lines. To characterize further the biological function of Fas, particularly with regard to its function in normal cells, a panel of monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) was generated against the extracellular portion of human Fas. Some of these mAbs induced apoptosis in transformed cell lines expressing Fas, but only when immobilized on the culture vessel. One of the new Fas mAbs (M38) was used for studies on normal lymphoid cells and found to stimulate the proliferation of purified human T cells and thymocytes when immobilized on culture wells along with CD3 antibody. T cell proliferation induced by Fas mAb was largely interleukin 2 independent and was demonstrated to be due to a direct effect on the precursor T cell. Thus, the data demonstrate that in addition to a role in the induction of apoptosis in certain transformed cell lines, the Fas protein may also play an important role in the activation and proliferation of normal T cells.