The aim of the present study was to investigate the pathogenic properties of islet-infiltrating lymphocytes related to the severity of the autoimmune destruction of islet beta-cells in the NOD mouse. We analysed the development of insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) produced by adoptive transfer of islet lymphocytes from NOD into NOD.scid mice. Here we show that the transfer was most effective when both CD4+ and CD8+ T cells were present in the infiltrate, but CD4+ T cells alone were sufficient to cause the disease. Islet lymphocytes from both females and males transferred diabetes effectively, but the severity of IDDM was higher when female islet lymphocytes were used. Unexpectedly, the sensitivity of male islets to beta-cell damage was greater than that of female islets. Treatment of NOD females with a peptide of heat shock protein (hsp)60, p277, known to protect NOD mice from IDDM, reduced the pathogenicity of the islet lymphocytes. In contrast, administration of cyclophosphamide to males, a treatment that accelerates the disease, rendered the islet lymphocytes more pathogenic. More severe disease in the recipient NOD.scid mice was associated with more interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma)-secreting islet T cells of the NOD donor. The disease induced by islet lymphocytes was strongly inhibited by co-transfer of spleen cells from prediabetic mice, emphasizing the regulatory role of peripheral lymphocytes. Thus, the cellular characteristics of the islet infiltrate and the pathogenicity of the cells are subject to complex regulation.