The CD69 antigen has been identified as the earliest activation marker on the surface of cytokine- or mitogen-activated lymphocytes. The expression of this molecule may be a useful early marker of antigen- or allergen-specific activation of lymphocytes in vitro. We evaluated the expression of the CD69 and CD25 antigens on antigen- or allergen-stimulated lymphocytes and the proliferative responses as detected by thymidine incorporation. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) of allergic patients sensitized to Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus, bovine casein, or nickel sulfate were cultured in the absence or presence of clinically relevant allergens, tetanus toxoid, or recombinant interleukin (IL)-2. The respective binding of CD69 or CD25 antibodies to PBMC and thymidine incorporation were measured. An early expression of CD69, but not of CD25, antigen was detectable after 24-72 h of stimulation on up to 80% of natural killer (NK) cells and up to 10% of CD4+ T cells in PBMC cultures. Anti-IL-2 antibodies inhibited these increases of CD69 on NK cells and T cells by up to 60%. After 6 days of antigenic stimulation, the rates of both CD25+ and CD69+ lymphocytes were higher. Seventy-four percent of the CD25+ PBMC but only 55% of the CD69+ cells were CD3+ T lymphocytes at this time. No qualitative differences were detectable in allergen- or tetanus-toxoid-stimulated PBMC from allergic patients. The high expression of CD69 on NK cells in antigen-stimulated cultures suggests that these cells are easily activated by cytokines from antigen-stimulated T cells. CD69+ NK cells may serve as early-indicator cells in cultures with antigen- or allergen-stimulated mononuclear cells.