With the use of cultured human thymic epithelial (TE) cells, we have previously shown that thymocytes bind to TE cells in suspension in a rosette-forming assay. To identify cell surface molecules involved in human TE-thymocyte rosette formation, we assayed a large panel of monoclonal antibodies for their ability to inhibit rosette formation. We found anti-CD-2 (LFA-2, T11), and anti-LFA-3 antibodies all inhibited binding of TE cells to thymocytes. By using indirect immunofluorescence assays, we determined that cultured TE cells were 90% LFA-3 positive and CD-2 negative, whereas thymocytes were 10% LFA-3 positive and 98% CD-2 positive. Pretreatment of TE cells with anti-LFA-3 but not anti-LFA-2 inhibited TE-thymocyte binding. In contrast, pretreatment of thymocytes with anti-CD-2 but not anti-LFA-3 antibodies inhibited TE-thymocyte binding. Thus TE cell-thymocyte binding is blocked by antibodies to the CD-2 (T11) antigen on thymocytes and by an antibody to the LFA-3 antigen on TE cells. Because the CD-2 antigen has been implicated in T cell activation, these data suggest that a natural ligand for T cell activation via the CD-2 molecule is present on human thymic epithelial cells.