The activation of CD8+ suppressor T cells by normal intestinal epithelial cells in antigen-specific or allogeneic mixed cell culture systems has significant implications for the regulation of mucosal immune responses. In this study, we found that the capacity of epithelial cells to induce CD8+ suppressor T cell activation appeared to be linked to the binding of CD8 molecules on the T cell surface. This appears to be mediated by a non-class I molecule expressed on the epithelial cell surface, which binds to CD8 and results in the activation of the CD8-associated src-like tyrosine kinase, p56lck. Epithelial cell-stimulated p56lck activation is an early event (in contrast to monocytes) and is essential for T cell activation, since proliferation could be completely abrogated by pretreatment of T cells with genestein or herbamycin, both of which are protein tyrosine kinase inhibitors. Pretreatment of T cells with anti-CD8 or of intestinal epithelial cells with an anti-epithelial cell mAb B9 inhibited p56lck activation and further confirmed that CD8 on the T cell and a CD8 ligand on the epithelial cell were involved in this T cell activation event. The specificity of this reaction was confirmed in experiments in which murine transfectants 3G4 and 3G8, expressing CD4 or CD8, respectively, were used. Coculture of 3G8 with epithelial cells but not with monocytes activated p56lck in this cell line, whereas p56lck was preferentially activated in 3G4 cells when monocytes were used as the stimulator cells. Although stimulation through CD8- and CD8-associated p56lck was important for epithelial cell-induced T cell activation, T cell proliferation could not be induced by cross-linking CD8 alone with monoclonal antibody anti-CD8. These data suggest that a second signal, possibly through the T cell antigen receptor since activation of the T cell receptor-associated kinase fyn was also seen, is required for epithelial cell-driven T cell proliferation.