CsA, FK-506, and rapamycin are microbial products with potent immunosuppressive properties that result primarily from a selective inhibition of T lymphocyte activation. Although chemically unrelated, CsA and FK-506 affect a similar subset of calcium-associated signaling events involved in the regulation of lymphokine gene expression, activation-driven T-cell death and exocytosis. Rapamycin has structural similarity with FK-506 but suppresses T-cell activation at a different level, mainly through inhibition of proliferation induced by growth-promoting lymphokines. CsA interacts with an abundant 17 kDa protein, termed cyclophilin, that possesses peptidyl-prolyl cis-trans isomerase (PPIase) activity. Additional, minor cyclophilin-like molecules have been identified. Both FK-506 and rapamycin interact with FKBP, a 12 kDa protein, which, although unrelated to cyclophilin, is also abundant and ubiquitous, has a similar enzymatic activity, and is a member of a larger family of FKBPs. All three immunosuppressants inhibit the PPIase activity of their respective binding proteins. However, nonimmunosuppressive analogs of CsA and FK-506 are also inhibitory, indicating that inhibition of PPIase activity is not directly implicated in immunosuppression. Moreover, only a small fraction of the cellular pool of the major forms of cyclophilin or FKBP needs to be occupied by the drugs in order to achieve maximal immunosuppression. These observations suggest that complexes formed between the drugs and their major binding proteins may affect the function of other, unidentified, molecules or, alternatively, that minor binding proteins may play a role in the drugs' action. Further characterization of the biochemical processes altered by CsA, FK-506, and rapamycin should yield important insights into the signal transduction pathways involved in T-cell activation and should help in the development of novel immunosuppressive agents.