1. The cyclic AMP phosphodiesterases (PDE) expressed by CD4+ and CD8+ T-lymphocytes purified from the peripheral blood of normal adult subjects were identified and characterized, and their role in modulating proliferation and the biosynthesis of interleukin (IL)-2 and interferon (IFN)-gamma evaluated. 2. In lysates prepared from both subsets, SK&F 95654 (PDE3 inhibitor) and rolipram (PDE4 inhibitor) suppressed cyclic AMP hydrolysis indicating the presence of PDE3 and PDE4 isoenzymes in these cells. Differential centrifugation and subsequent inhibitor and kinetic studies revealed that the particulate fraction contained, predominantly, a PDE3 isoenzyme. In contrast, the soluble fraction contained a PDE4 (approximately 65% of total activity) and, in addition, a novel enzyme that had the kinetic characteristics of the recently identified PDE7. 3. Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) studies with primer pairs designed to recognise unique sequences in the human PDE4 and PDE7 genes amplified cDNA fragments that corresponded to the predicted sizes of HSPDE4A, HSPDE4B, HSPDE54D and HSPDE7. No message was detected for HSPDE4C after 35 cycles of amplification. 4. Functionally, rolipram inhibited phytohaemagglutinin- (PHA) and anti-CD3-induced proliferation of CD4+ and CD8+ T-lymphocytes, and the elaboration of IL-2, which was associated with a three to four fold increase in cyclic AMP mass. In all experiments, however, rolipram was approximately 60 fold more potent at suppressing IL-2 synthesis than at inhibiting mitogenesis. In contrast, SK&F 95654 failed to suppress proliferation and cytokine generation, and did not elevate the cyclic AMP content in T-cells. Although inactive alone, SK&F 95654 potentiated the ability of rolipram to suppress PHA- and anti-CD3-induced T-cell proliferation, and PHA-induced IL-2 release. 5. When a combination of phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) and ionomycin were used as a co-mitogen, rolipram did not affect proliferation but, paradoxically, suppressed IL-2 release indicating that cyclic AMP can inhibit mitogenesis by acting at, or proximal to, the level of inositol phospholipid hydrolysis. 6. Collectively, these data suggest that PDE3 and PDE4 isoenzymes regulate the cyclic AMP content, IL-2 biosynthesis and proliferation in human CD4+ and CD8+ T-lymphocytes. However, the ability of rolipram to suppress markedly mitogen-induced IL-2 generation without affecting T-cell proliferation suggests that growth and division of T-lymphocytes may be governed by mediators in addition to IL-2. Finally, T-cells have the potential to express PDE7, although elucidating the functional role of this enzyme must await the development of selective inhibitors.