Recent study of human thymocyte-thymic epithelial (TE) cell interactions has demonstrated that thymocytes bind to TE cells, and a consequence of this binding is the provision of accessory cell signals by TE cells for phytohemagglutinin (PHA)-induced mature thymocyte activation. In this paper we report on studies of the molecules involved in TE cell-dependent mature thymocyte activation. TE-thymocyte interactions necessary for PHA-induced thymocyte activation were inhibited by monoclonal antibodies against the cluster of differentiation (CD)2 antigen on thymocytes and lymphocyte function-associated (LFA)-3 antigen on TE cells. Inhibition of TE accessory cell signals by antibodies against CD2 (alpha CD2) and LFA-3 (alpha LFA-3) antigens occurred early on during thymocyte activation and prevented thymocyte interleukin 2 receptor expression. Further, alpha CD2 and alpha LFA-3 inhibited PHA-induced thymocyte activation in whole thymic explant cultures suggesting a significant role of the CD2 and LFA-3 antigens in thymocyte activation when accessory cell signals for PHA-induced thymocyte triggering were delivered by cells within an intact thymic microenvironment.