Intraepithelial lymphocytes (IEL) form a large population of T cells in close contact with the intestinal lumen and differ from lymphocytes in other lymphoid compartments by their predominant CD8+ phenotype and the strong expression of the recently characterized beta 7-containing integrin defined by the monoclonal antibody (mAb) HML-1. The aim of the present in vitro study was to investigate the possible role of the integrin defined by HML-1 in the activation of human IEL via the CD3-T cell receptor (TcR) pathway. The proliferative response of IEL to optimal concentrations of immobilized OKT3 was found to be similar to that of peripheral blood lymphocytes enriched in CD8+ cells. When co-immobilized with suboptimal concentrations of OKT3, antibodies directed against CD11a, CD29 and the beta 7-containing integrin defined by HML-1 exerted a strong synergistic effect on the proliferative response and on the expression of CD25 and CD71 antigens by human IEL. These data indicate that the CD3-TcR pathway is functional in human IEL and contrast with previous observations suggesting that the CD3-TcR pathway was difficult to elicit in human IEL. Furthermore, the present data show that the immune response of human IEL can be modulated via interactions between integrins expressed by IEL and their respective ligands in the mucosa and suggest that IEL's activation may depend on the level of expression of integrin ligands in the epithelium, particularly of the expression of the as yet unknown ligand for the IEL-specific integrin defined by HML-1.