Activated CD4+ Th2 cells release cytokines (IL-4,-10) that block activation & cytokine (IL-2/IFN-gamma) release by proinflammatory T (CD4+,CD8+) effector cells. To test the hypothesis that peripheral tolerance to alloantigen is linked to differential activation of CD4+ Th2 cells we measured cytokine transcripts in heart grafts (C57BL/10----C3H/HeJ) and spleens of mice rendered "tolerant" by donor-specific blood transfusion, anti-CD4 mAb pretreatment, and cyclosporine administration. The expression of IL-2/IFN-gamma transcripts was reduced greater than 90% in grafts from tolerant recipients. IL-4/IL-10 transcripts were generally enhanced and persisted in graft and recipient spleen. Accordingly adoptive transfer studies were performed to determine whether Th2-like effectors, which express Fc receptors (FcR), mediate suppression in this model. Unfractionated mononuclear cells (MC) (5 x 10(6), isolated from spleens of heart graft recipients made tolerant by DST, prolonged the survival of test grafts greater than 90 days in irradiated (680 rads) recipients reconstituted with a sufficient number of MC from spleens of naive C3H to precipitate rejection of the test graft in 18.2 days (MST, n = 5). Conversely adoptive transfer of inocula depleted of FcR+ cells on immune complex columns or with anti-FcR mAb 24G2 caused test grafts to be rejected in 8-11 days. These results suggest that peripheral tolerance to alloantigen may be linked to differential activation of Th2 cells that induce anergy by suppression. The possibility that Th2-like effectors mediate peripheral tolerance to self is discussed.