Measles virus (MV) inhibits lymphocyte function in patients, as well as in cells infected in vitro. The proliferation of phytohemagglutinin-stimulated T lymphocytes is suppressed by in vitro MV infection, as shown by the diminished incorporation of [3H]thymidine into DNA and the reduced frequency of cells in the S phase of the cell cycle, as compared with mock-infected cells. MV infection itself, however, does not completely block DNA synthesis in infected cells, because infected T cells expressing MV antigens on the cell surface, isolated by fluorescence-activated cell sorter, could still proliferate. Northern blot analysis indicated that the expression of genes induced during T cell activation, such as those encoding interleukin 2 (IL-2), c-myc, IL-2 receptor, IL-6, c-myb, and cdc-2, was not significantly suppressed in MV-infected cells, suggesting that MV does not interfere with the T cell activation process. When anti-MV serum or carbobenzoxy-D-Phe-L-Phe-Gly, a synthetic oligopeptide known to inhibit MV-induced fusion, was added 24 hr after infection, the inhibition of T cell proliferation was reversed in a dose-dependent manner. From these results we propose a model for the inhibition of T cell proliferation by MV; MV glycoproteins expressed on the cell surface of infected cells interact with the MV receptor or other molecules on the cell membrane of adjacent T cells, which in turn affects the proliferation of those T cells.