In the present study, naive T cells were compared with in vivo generated effector and memory T cells expressing the same TCR specific for lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus. Upon restimulation in vitro, the same minimal concentrations of the full agonist peptide p33 and also of weak and partial agonist peptides were required for proliferation of naive, effector and memory T cells, indicating no difference in threshold of activation. However, activation kinetics were distinct. While effector cytotoxic T cells exhibited immediate ex vivo lytic effector function, naive and memory T cells required 12 h and more exposure to antigen to develop lytic activity. However, both effector and memory T cells contained IFN-gamma mRNA in vivo and required less than 3 h for secretion of cytokines upon restimulation in vitro. In contrast, naive T cells did not contain IFN-gamma mRNA and required more than 12 h for cytokine secretion. Our results show that memory T cells exhibit a unique phenotype in that they produce cytokines and commit to proliferation as rapidly as effector cells, whereas they resemble naive T cells in the time requirement for development of cytolytic function.