The T cell antigen receptor is composed of two variable chains (alpha and beta, termed Ti), which confer ligand specificity, and five constant chains (gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, and p21, collectively termed CD3) whose functions are poorly understood. To explore the roles of the individual CD3 components, an antigen-specific murine T cell hybridoma was chemically mutagenized and antigen-induced growth inhibition was used to select CD3/Ti expression variants. One variant produced all CD3/Ti components except CD3-zeta and was able to express small amounts of surface CD3/Ti. This variant failed to respond normally to either antigen or a mitogenic anti-Thy-1 antibody. Surprisingly, in the absence of CD3-zeta, direct cross-linking of the partial receptor induced both phosphatidylinositol hydrolysis and interleukin 2 production. These data indicate that CD3-zeta determines the normal intracellular fate of the T cell antigen receptor and is likely to play an important role in physiologically relevant transmembrane signaling.