Up to 90% of CD8+ intraepithelial lymphocytes (IEL) of the murine large intestine (LI) belong to the alpha/beta T cell lineage and consist of two subsets. One subset expresses both alpha and beta subunits of the CD8 coreceptor, and is uniformly Thy1+, CD5+, B220-, CD2+, CD28+. The CD8 alpha+beta+ LI-IEL exclude self-reacting V beta structures, and readily proliferate in vivo in response to T cell receptor-mediated stimuli. The CD8 alpha+beta- subset of TCR-alpha/beta+ LI-IEL is Thy1-/+, CD5-, B220+, CD2+/-, and CD28-. It contains cells with potentially self-reacting V beta s and is responsive in vivo to high doses of anti-TCR-alpha/beta monoclonal antibody (mAb), but not to bacterial superantigens. Both subsets are abundant in LI-IEL of old nude mice, and CD8 alpha+beta+ LI-IEL in nude mice undergo the same V beta deletions as in euthymic mice of the same background. Both subsets express the intestinal T cell-specific integrin alpha M290 beta 7, known to be a homing receptor for IEL. Unusually high proportions of CD69+ cells within both subsets indicate chronic activation. The proportions of CD69+ and alpha M290 beta 7+ cells within the CD8 alpha+beta+ subset increase with age, probably due to constant antigenic challenge. We propose that CD8 alpha+beta+ and CD8 alpha+beta- subsets of LI-IEL permanently reside in LI and represent a lineage different from spleen and lymph node CD8+ T cells. The CD8 alpha+beta+ undergoes negative selection, and is responsive to TCR-mediated stimuli. The CD8 alpha+beta- subset of LI-IEL is a subject of distinct selection mechanisms, and has low responsiveness to TCR-mediated stimuli.