Growth and differentiation of thymocytes and mature T lymphocytes is regulated by cellular interactions that are in part mediated by soluble factors. We identify IL-6, formerly called B cell stimulating factor (BSF-2). IFN-beta 2, or hybridoma-plasmacytoma growth factor (HPGF) as a novel T cell costimulant rIL-6 induced a six-to seven-fold increase in proliferation of human thymocytes stimulated with suboptimal doses of PHA. A similar effect with added IL-6 could be observed using peripheral blood T lymphocytes, but only if the cultures were first rigorously depleted of monocytes that release high levels of IL-6. Analysis of the mechanism of the IL-6 effect on thymocytes and T lymphocytes showed that IL-6 did not lead to an increase in IL-2-R expression. Concentrations of antibody to IL-2-R inhibiting IL-2 effects did not block the IL-6-induced proliferation, indicating that the IL-6 effect was relatively IL-2 independent. These results identify IL-6 as a novel costimulant of human thymocytes and mature T lymphocytes, and suggest that IL-6 is also an important regulatory of cellular immunity.