We have examined the role of CD81 in the activation of murine splenic alphabeta T cells. Expression of the CD81 molecule on T cells increases following activation, raising the possibility of a role for this molecule in progression of the activation process. Using an in vitro costimulation assay, we show that CD81 can function as a costimulatory molecule on both CD4+ and CD8+ T cells. This costimulation functions independently of CD28, and unlike costimulation through CD28, is susceptible to inhibition by cyclosporin A. Strikingly, the pattern of cytokine production elicited by costimulation via CD81 is unique. IL-2 production was not up-regulated, whereas both IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha expression significantly increased. Together our results demonstrate an alternate pathway for costimulation of T cell activation mediated by CD81.