In contrast with the study of alpha beta T cells, that of gamma delta T cells is relatively recent and stems from the discovery of their rearranged genes, rather than from any knowledge of their biological function. Thus, experiments designed to characterize their specificity and function have drawn heavily on our knowledge of alpha beta T cells. During the past few years, many studies, especially with mice lacking either alpha beta or gamma delta T cells, have demonstrated that gamma delta T cells can contribute to immune competence, but they do so in a way that is distinct from alpha beta T cells. It is also evident that gamma delta T cells may not recognize antigen the same way as do alpha beta T cells. Analysis of three protein antigens-the murine MHC class II IEk, the nonclassical MHC T10/T22, and the Herpes virus glycoprotein gI-indicates that gamma delta T cell recognition does not require antigen processing and that the proteins are recognized directly. In all three cases, recognition by these T cell clones involves neither peptides bound to these proteins nor peptides derived from them. Moreover, a group of small phosphate-containing nonpeptide compounds derived from mycobacterial extracts has been found to stimulate a major population of human peripheral gamma delta T cells in a T cell receptor (TCR)-dependent manner. This indicates that gamma delta T cells can respond to ligands that are different from those of alpha beta T cells. Analysis of complementarity determining region (CDR3) length distributions of gamma and delta chains indicates that they are more similar to those of immunoglobulins than to TCR alpha and beta. This further supports the idea that gamma delta and alpha beta T cells recognize antigens differently and suggests that gamma delta T cells may be more like immunoglobulins in their recognition properties. gamma delta T cells share many cell surface proteins with alpha beta T cells and are able to secrete lymphokines and express cytolytic activities in response to antigenic stimulation. These, together with the results cited above, indicate that gamma delta T cells can mediate cellular immune functions without a requirement for antigen processing. Thus, pathogens, damaged tissues, or even B and T cells can be recognized directly, and cellular immune responses can be initiated without a requirement for antigen degradation or specialized antigen-presenting cells. This would give gamma delta T cells greater flexibility than the more classical type of alpha beta T cell-mediated cellular immunity.