The staphylococcal enterotoxins (SE) comprise a family of structurally related phage-encoded bacterial proteins, which are the most potent mitogens known for murine and human T lymphocytes. In this report we describe a novel cytotoxic mechanism, where SE directs human CD3+ T lymphocytes to mediate strong cytotoxicity against target cells of irrelevant nominal specificity. The SE-dependent cellular cytotoxicity (SDCC) occurred at picomolar concentrations of SE and involved the initial binding of the SE to the target cells and subsequent triggering of the cytotoxic T cells. SDCC was induced by SEA, SEB, SEC1 and SED, which indicates that this is a common property conserved among all SE. Certain antibodies to the HLA-DR molecule efficiently blocked SDCC. Major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II+ RAJI cells and HLA-DR-transfected murine L cells were sensitive to SDCC, whereas the MHC class II- RJ.2.2.5 RAJI cell mutant and untransfected L cells were completely resistant to SDCC. These results demonstrate that the MHC class II antigen is the target molecule in SDCC. HLA-DR molecules acted as receptors for SE and the complex was recognized by T lymphocytes in a polyclonal fashion. SDCC was mediated by allospecific cytotoxic CD8+ T cells, by cloned CD8+ T cells and by fresh human peripheral blood mononuclear cells. The SDCC phenomenon provides a rapid, potent and specific mechanism for elimination of HLA-DR+ target cells. We suggest that SDCC is an important combat strategy, employed by the bacteria to avoid specific MHC class II antigen-dependent immune recognition, by inducing T-cell dependent autologous lysis of MHC class II-expressing cells.