There is a growing body of evidence, including data from human genetic and T-cell receptor function studies, which implicate a zeta-associated protein of M(r) 70,000 (Zap-70) as a critical protein tyrosine kinase in T-cell activation and development. During T-cell activation, Zap-70 becomes associated via its src homology type 2 (SH2) domains with tyrosine-phosphorylated immune-receptor tyrosine activating motif (ITAM) sequences in the cytoplasmic zeta chain of the T-cell receptor. An intriguing conundrum is how Zap-70 is catalytically activated for downstream phosphorylation events. To address this question, we have used purified Zap-70, tyrosine phosphorylated glutathione S-transferase (GST)-Zeta, and GST-Zeta-1 cytoplasmic domains, and various forms of ITAM-containing peptides to see what effect binding of zeta had upon Zap-70 tyrosine kinase activity. The catalytic activity of Zap-70 with respect to autophosphorylation increased approximately 5-fold in the presence of 125 nM phosphorylated GST-Zeta or GST-Zeta-1 cytoplasmic domain. A 20-fold activity increase was observed for phosphorylation of an exogenous substrate. Both activity increases showed a GST-Zeta concentration dependence. The increase in activity was not produced with nonphosphorylated GST-Zeta, phosphorylated zeta, or phosphorylated ITAM-containing peptides. The increase in Zap-70 activity was SH2 mediated and was inhibited by phenylphosphate, Zap-70 SH2, and an antibody specific for Zap-70 SH2 domains. Since GST-Zeta and GST-Zeta-1 exist as dimers, the data suggest Zap-70 is activated upon binding a dimeric form of phosphorylated zeta and not by peptide fragments containing a single phosphorylated ITAM. Taken together, these data indicate that the catalytic activity of Zap-70 is most likely activated by a trans-phosphorylation mechanism.