Activation of T cell hybridomas induces a G1/S cell cycle block and apoptosis. We isolated a variant of the 2B4.11 T cell hybridoma that, when activated via the TCR, produced IL-2 and underwent growth inhibition but did not die. Analysis of a variety of cell surface molecules revealed that the variant cell line, termed VD1, expressed very low levels of Fas compared to the wild type cells. Unlike 2B4.11 cells, VD1 cells were not killed by Fas ligand (FasL)-bearing effector cells. To determine if Fas is involved in activation-induced apoptosis, two different reagents that specifically bind Fas without killing the T cell hybridomas, a monoclonal antibody and a soluble Fas:Fc chimeric molecule, were added to activated T cell hybridomas. Both treatments prevented activation-induced apoptosis in a dose-dependent manner, but had no effect on IL-2 production or growth inhibition. Northern blot analysis revealed that unactivated 2B4.11 cells expressed negligible levels of FasL mRNA, but transcripts were detectable as early as 2 h after activation and continued to increase up to 4-6 h after activation. Anti-TCR induced activation of 2B4.11 cells in the presence of a TCR- 2B4.11 variant resulted in death of the unactivated "bystander" cells, which was inhibited by anti-Fas antibodies. Finally, treatment of T hybridoma cells with 9-cis retinoic acid or glucocorticoids, which are known to prevent activation-induced T cell apoptosis, inhibited the up-regulation of FasL. We conclude that up-regulated expression of FasL and its subsequent interaction with Fas accounts for the apoptotic response of T cell hybridomas to activation, and that retinoic acid and corticosteroids inhibit activation-induced apoptosis by preventing up-regulation of FasL.