In the present experiments, costimulatory effects of interleukin 12 (IL-12) and B7-2 on interleukin 2 receptor alpha chain (IL-2R alpha) expression and IL-2-dependent proliferation of naive and memory CD4+ T cells were studied in comparison with the effect of these molecules on Th1 clones. The naive and memory T cells were negatively sorted on the basis of the expression of CD44 and CD45RB, respectively, to diminish the effect of these antibodies on the activation of these cells. When these three T cell populations were stimulated with allogeneic B cells, the addition of IL-12 elicited IL-2R alpha expression and proliferation of all these T cell populations. With anti-B7-2 being included in culture, these responses of naive T cells were abrogated, whereas those of memory T cells and Th1 clones were affected only marginally. When they were stimulated with immobilized anti-CD3, the inclusion of either IL-12 or Chinese hamster ovary cells expressing B7-2 (B7-2CHO) induced IL-2R alpha expression and enhanced IL-2-dependent proliferation of memory T cells, whereas these responses of naive T cells were induced by the inclusion of B7-2CHO and enhanced by the addition of IL-12, although the addition of IL-12 alone did not affect the responses. The responses of Th1 clones were markedly enhanced by IL-12, but not by B7-2CHO, and the enhancement of the proliferation was augmented further by the addition of both IL-12 and B7-2CHO. In IFN-gamma production B7-2 costimulation was required for the enhancing effect of IL-12 on the responses of naive T cells. IL-2 production of all T cell populations was not affected by IL-12 even in the presence of B7-2CHO. These results indicate that IL-12 provides the costimulation for IL-2R alpha expression and IL-2-dependent proliferation of memory T cells and Th1 clones stimulated with TCR ligation, whereas naive T cells require B7-2 costimulation for their response to IL-12. Possible mechanisms of B7-2 costimulation in the response of T cells to IL-12 is discussed.