Ligation of antigen receptors at the surface of lymphocytes initiates a transcriptional and translational response that is required for cellular proliferation and effector function. By contrast, co-stimulatory-molecule ligation contributes to the immune response by allowing the uptake and utilization of extracellular nutrients to provide energy for cellular proliferation and effector functions. Growth factors also potentiate the ability of lymphocytes to metabolically switch between resting and proliferative states. Lymphocytes that do not receive these signals fail to increase their metabolism to meet the higher bioenergetic demands of cell growth and are either deleted or rendered unresponsive to mitogenic signals. In this Review, we describe how T cells actively acquire metabolic substrates from their environment to meet these energy demands and respond appropriately to pathogens.