CD4, the T cell surface antigen, is phosphorylated and internalized when T cells are activated or treated with a phorbol ester, PMA. The actual phosphorylation sites have been identified and the role of phosphorylation of each on CD4 internalization investigated. Seven different mutants, in each of which one, two or all three of the serine residues of the cytoplasmic region was modified to alanine(s) (CD4.SA mutants) and one mutant in which the whole amino acid sequence from Gln421 to the C-terminal Ile433 was changed (CD4.EP mutant) were constructed and used to determine the effect of phosphorylation on CD4 internalization. Ser408 was the most efficiently phosphorylated by PMA treatment, Ser415 next and Ser431 to a minor extent. The effect of mutation on internalization was well matched with the effect on extent of phosphorylation, i.e. Ser408 was the residue most important for internalization. However, complete inhibition of CD4 internalization was achieved only by mutating all three serine residues. Interestingly, the mutant CD4.EP in which Ser408 was present and phosphorylated was not measurably internalized, suggesting that phosphorylation of Ser408 induces CD4 internalization only when other structural features of the cytoplasmic domain remain intact. In addition, the data suggest the existence of an additional minor pathway for CD4 internalization which is phosphorylation independent.