Autoimmune diabetes in nonobese diabetic (NOD) mice results from destruction of pancreatic beta cells by T lymphocytes. It is believed that CD8(+) cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) effect the initial beta-cell insult in diabetes, but the mechanisms remain unclear. Studies of NOD.lpr mice have suggested that disease initiation is a Fas-dependent process, yet perforin-deficient NOD mice rarely develop diabetes despite expressing Fas. Here, we have investigated the role of perforin and Fas in the ability of beta cell-reactive CD8(+) T cells bearing a T-cell receptor (8.3-TCR) that is representative of TCRs used by CD8(+) CTLs propagated from the earliest insulitic lesions of NOD mice, and that targets an immunodominant peptide/H-2Kd complex on beta cells, to effect beta-cell damage in vitro and in vivo. In vitro, 8.3-CTLs killed antigenic peptide-pulsed non-beta-cell targets via both perforin and Fas, but they killed NOD beta cells via Fas exclusively. Perforin-deficient 8.3-TCR-transgenic NOD mice expressing an oligoclonal or monoclonal T-cell repertoire developed diabetes even more frequently than their perforin-competent littermates. These results demonstrate that diabetogenic CD8(+) CTLs representative of CTLs putatively involved in the initiation of autoimmune diabetes kill beta cells in a Fas-dependent and perforin-independent manner.