Autoreactive T cell activation is a consistent feature of murine lupus; however, the mechanism of such activation remains unclear. We hypothesized that naive CD4+ T cells in lupus have a lower threshold of activation through their TCR-CD3 complex that renders them more susceptible to stimulation with self-Ags. To test this hypothesis, we compared proliferation, IL-2 production, and single cell calcium signaling of naive CD4+ T cells isolated from Fas-intact MRL/+(Fas-lpr) mice with H-2k-matched B10.BR and CBA/CaJ controls, following anti-CD3 stimulation in the presence or absence of anti-CD28. We also assessed the responsiveness of naive CD4+ T cells isolated from Fas-intact MRL and control mice bearing a rearranged TCR specific for amino acids 88-104 of pigeon cytochrome c to cognate and low affinity peptide Ags presented by bone marrow-matured dendritic cells. TCR transgenic and wild-type CD4+ T cells from MRL mice displayed a lower threshold of activation than control cells, a response that was class II MHC dependent. The rise in intracellular calcium in MRL vs controls was enhanced and prolonged following anti-CD3 triggering, suggestive of proximal defects in TCR-engendered signaling as the mechanism for the observed hyperactivity. These findings were observed as early as 1-2 mo postweaning and, based on analysis of F1 T cells, appeared to be dominantly expressed. This genetically altered threshold for activation of MRL T cells, a consequence of a proximal defect in CD3-mediated signal transduction, may contribute to the abrogation of T cell tolerance to self-Ags in lupus.