This study examines the influence of IL-7 on post-thymic CD4+ T cells using cord blood as a model system. Survival of naive cord blood T cells in the presence of IL-7 alone was significantly prolonged by up-regulating bcl-2, thereby preventing apoptosis while maintaining maximal cell viability. Cultures without IL-7 showed high rates of apoptosis resulting in 50% cell death by day 5 of culture. Upon phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate + ionomycin stimulation, accumulation of cytoplasmic IL-2 was similar to that observed in freshly isolated cells, but no IL-4- or IFN-gamma-positive cells were detected. IL-7 maintained the naive T cells in a quiescent state expressing the CD45RA antigen. A significant finding was the loss of CD38 antigen expression on the naive cord blood T cells to levels similar to that observed on adult naive T cells. In contrast to the reduced proliferative response of fresh cord blood T cells to anti-CD2 + CD28 stimulation, the proliferative response of IL-7-treated cells was similar to that of adult naive T cells. This study shows that as well as maintaining the naive T cell pool by enhancing cell survival and up-regulating bcl-2 expression, IL-7 also functions as a maturation factor for post-thymic naive T cells.