CD69 is a lymphoid activation antigen whose rapid expression (< or = 2 h postactivation) makes it amenable for the early detection of T-cell activation and for subset activation analyses. In the present study we evaluated the utility of flow cytometric detection of CD69 expression by T cells activated with polyclonal stimuli (anti-CD3 and staphylococcal enterotoxin B [SEB]) and oligoclonal stimuli (tetanus toxoid and allogeneic cells) using flow cytometry. Following activation of T cells with anti-CD3 or SEB, CD69 is detectable at < or = 4 h following activation, with anti-CD3 peaks at 18 to 48 h. Dose titration experiments indicated that CD69 expression largely paralleled that in [3H]thymidine incorporation assays, although the former offered a more sensitive measure of T-cell activation at limiting doses of activator than [3H]thymidine incorporation when cells were activated with either anti-CD3 or SEB. However, activation of T cells with either tetanus toxoid or allogeneic stimulator cells failed to induce detectable CD69 expression at up to 7 days of culture. Subset analyses of anti-CD3- and SEB-activated T cells indicated that populations other than T cells can express CD69 following stimulation with T-cell-specific stimuli, indicating that CD69 can be induced indirectly in non-T cells present in the population. These findings indicate that CD69 is a useful marker for quantifying T-cell and T-cell subset activation in mixed populations but that its utility might be restricted to potent stimuli that are characterized by their ability to activate large numbers of cells with rapid kinetics.