On the basis of expression of the T cell differentiation antigen CD27, human peripheral blood CD4+ memory cells can be divided into two subsets, a large CD45RA-CD27+ (82%) and a small CD45RA-CD27- (18%) population. Analysis of the functional properties of these memory T cell subsets showed that proliferative responses to the recall antigen tetanus toxoid (TT), shortly after booster immunization, were mainly confined to the CD27- population. Also, in atopic individuals, proliferative responses to allergens for which these individuals are sensitized, were limited to the CD45RA-CD27- population. After stimulation with CD3 monoclonal antibody and phorbol ester, CD27+ cells produced vast amounts of interleukin (IL)-2 but minimal amounts of IL-4, whereas in marked contrast, CD27- T cells secreted low levels of IL-2 and high levels of IL-4. The capacity of the vast majority of these latter cells to produce IL-4 was found to be a stable feature since high IL-4 secreting T cell clones were generated from the CD27- subset. These findings suggest that upon renewed as well as chronic antigenic stimulation in vivo, memory T cells acquire the CD45RA-CD27- phenotype and that, as a consequence, in this subset functionally differentiated CD4+ T cells are compartmentalized. Our results predict that analysis of the small CD27- subset of memory cells, that makes up approximately 10% of the peripheral blood T cell population, will provide information on the specificity and function of responding CD4+ T cells at a given point in time in healthy and diseased individuals.