Lymphocytes taken from the cord blood of newborns have active suppressor activity. Using in vitro PWM-stimulated cocultures, unfractionated T cells from newborns potently suppressed the expected immunoglobulin G (IgG) synthesis of their mothers' peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL). Using positive and negative selection techniques, we characterized the active suppressor cell as expressing the OKT4+T8- phenotype. This cord blood lymphocyte subset suppressed maternal IgG synthesis after depletion of maternal suppressor cells, implicating the ability of newborn T cells to suppress directly rather than by inducing adult suppressor activity. Sublethal amounts (1500 rad) of gamma-irradiation fully abrogated the suppressor activity of cord blood T lymphocytes. Radioresistant cord T cells provided T cell help. Irradiation of cord OKT4+ and OKT8+ populations and their subsequent culture with maternal B cells determined that helper activity was a radioresistant subpopulation of the OKT4+ subset. These results indicate significant differences in the functional properties of T cell subsets from adults and newborns. Population studies determined that cord blood lymphocytes had a greater proportion of OKT4+ cells and lower proportion of OKT8+ cells than PBL from unrelated adults. The mothers tested had similar proportions of OKT4+ cells as their babies, and these levels are significantly higher than those of unrelated adults.