The receptor for EBV, CD21 is expressed on a population of immature human thymocytes and facilitates infection of these cells by EBV. Thymocytes infected by EBV become responsive to exogenous rIL-2- or CD2-mediated stimulation in vitro. To address whether such costimulation may be provided by thymic presenting cells and to study the cellular effects of EBV infection, the present work utilizes thymocyte cultures containing autologous thymic presenting cells. In the presence of these presenting cells, EBV induces proliferation of thymocytes. EBV infection promotes the formation of adhesions between two populations of cells in an APC responder fashion, and separation of these two populations abrogates the proliferative response to EBV. The response is mediated by IL-2 because Ab blocking of the IL-2R inhibits proliferation as does cyclosporin A. EBV promotes an expansion in the number of CD4+8+ thymocytes, and the proliferating population is vulnerable to TCR/CD3-generated signals, indicating that the responding cells are phenotypically and functionally immature. Finally, addition of exogenous IL-2 to EBV-exposed thymocytes promotes a second wave of proliferation. Phenotypic characterization of the EBV-induced, IL-2-responding cells shows them to express reduced levels of CD1 and a transitional CD4(high)8(low) phenotype. These data characterize the cellular response to EBV infection in thymocytes and may offer insight into EBV-associated T lineage malignancies and autoimmune disorders.