The T lymphocytes that expand with age in the peripheral lymphoid organs of autoimmune disease-prone mice homozygous for the lpr mutation display deficient activation and proliferation in response to mitogenic lectins or antigen. In the present study, an attempt was made to correlate the deficient agonist-induced proliferation of these lpr T cells with early transmembrane signaling events mediated by receptor-coupled phosphoinositide hydrolysis. lpr T cells were capable of binding the agonistic lectin, phytohemagglutinin, in a normal manner. In addition, they expressed on their surface the antigen-specific T cell receptor-CD3 complex, which is required for T cell activation, albeit at a lower density than that found on congenic +/+ T cells. Furthermore, lpr T cells contained normal levels of the Ca2+- and phospholipid-dependent enzyme, protein kinase C, and the enzyme was translocated from the cytosol to the particulate fraction upon phorbol ester treatment. On the other hand, the lpr T cells displayed a markedly deficient agonist-induced phosphoinositide hydrolysis in comparison with their congenic +/+ counterparts, as indicated by the minimal accumulation of the phosphoinositide-derived second messengers, inositol phosphates and diacylglycerol. The defective step(s) in transmembrane signaling was bypassed by a combination of phorbol ester plus Ca2+ ionophore, which reconstituted proliferative responses of lpr T cells to normal levels, suggesting that: (a) the phosphoinositide signaling pathway plays an obligatory role in T cell activation; and (b) signaling events subsequent to phosphoinositide hydrolysis are, for the most part, intact in lpr T cells. The deficient step(s) in lpr T cell activation precedes, therefore, the generation of phosphoinositide-derived second messengers and could be due to defective function of the T cell receptor-CD3 complex, GTP-binding proteins, and/or phosphoinositide-specific phosphodiesterase. It remains to be determined whether the deficient signaling event(s) in lpr T cells is a direct pathologic consequence of the lpr gene, or rather, reflects the immature status of a normally minor thymic subset that is aberrantly exported and expanded in lpr mice.