Cell surface phenotyping of 58 newly diagnosed diabetic children and 25 controls confirmed the presence of activated T cells, expressing HLA class II antigens or receptors for interleukin-2 (IL-2R, CD25) in the majority of the patients. Some of these cells putatively include those involved in islet cell destruction, as reported previously. Monoclonal antibodies recognizing three families of the variable regions of the beta chain (V beta) of the T cell receptor were used to determine the percentage of peripheral blood cells expressing those specific gene segment products. The number of the activated T cells from each V beta family was compared with that of the resting T cells of the same family in the patients and the controls. In 18 out of 58 (31%) of these patients there was evidence of oligoclonal proliferation of activated T cells as judged by marked increases in cells expressing a V beta family in the IL-2R+ T cell pool, compared with the total T cell pool. However, different V beta families were augmented in individual patients, indicating considerable heterogeneity of T cell activation in different patients. These results are in contrast to murine models of autoimmunity, where virtually monoclonal T cell activation, restricted to a single V beta family has been reported.