A bispecific anti-CD3/anti-major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I antibody (Ab) that is able to activate human T cells in the absence of a second signal has been used to compare activation by this Ab to signaling by anti-CD3 Ab or by antigen (Ag). We have studied early, intermediate and late events that occur after triggering of a tetanus toxoid-specific T cell clone. While bivalent anti-CD3 Ab induce transient (less than 20 min) intracellular Ca2+ concentration increases, the bispecific Ab, like antigen-presenting cells plus Ag, produces sustained (greater than 2 h) elevated intracellular Ca2+ concentration. In addition, while the anti-CD3 Ab only induces low levels of c-myc mRNA lasting less than 3 h, the bispecific Ab induces high levels which are maintained for at least 8 h after triggering. Late events, such as interleukin 2 receptor expression and proliferation, occurring more than 20 h after activation, were seen only when T cells were stimulated by bispecific Ab or by antigen-presenting cell and Ag. Cells activated by linking T cell receptor (TcR)/CD3 to MHC class I antigens could not be activated by cross-linking the MHC and TcR/CD3 structures separately. Therefore, we propose that the bispecific Ab functions by modifying the membrane dynamics of the TcR/CD3 complex, rather than by the generation of a second signal through class I antigens.