Recent progress in the definition of molecules involved in immune regulation has led to the discovery of a number of type I membrane glycoproteins with a distinctive, cysteine-rich, repetitive domain structure within their extracellular regions. Because the prototype members of this family are receptors for cytokines (tumor necrosis factor [TNF] and nerve growth factor [NGF]), it was expected that the ligands for the other receptors would possess cytokine-like activities. This prediction has been fulfilled by the cloning of cDNA encoding a series of type II membrane glycoproteins, with homology to TNF, that bind to, and signal through, their cognate receptors. While the biological role of some of these ligand-receptor pairs remains obscure, at least two members of the family, CD40 and Fas, have proven their importance. The human X-linked immunodeficiency, hyper IgM syndrome, is the result of mutations in the CD40 ligand gene, and the Fas and Fas ligand genes are mutated in two mouse strains, lpr and gld, that develop autoimmune disease. These findings, together with other evidence, point to key roles of CD40/CD40 ligand interactions in immune activation, particularly in T-dependent B cell responses, and of Fas/Fas ligand in apoptosis and peripheral tolerance. These molecules, as well as the other ligands of the family, share the property of costimulation of T cell proliferation and are all expressed by activated T cells. More detailed analysis of the expression patterns of ligands and receptors on lymphocyte subpopulations will be necessary to define their different roles in immune activation and suppression.