CD2-mediated T lymphocyte activation requires surface expression of CD3-Ti, the T cell receptor (TCR) for antigen major histocompatibility complex protein. Given the importance of CD3 zeta in TCR signaling, we have directly examined the ability of the CD3 zeta cytoplasmic domain to couple CD2 to intracellular signal transduction pathways. A cDNA encoding a chimeric protein consisting of the human CD3 zeta cytoplasmic domain (amino acid residues 31-142) fused to the CD8 alpha extracellular and transmembrane domains (amino acid residues 1-187) was transfected into a CD2+CD3-CD8- variant of the human T cell line Jurkat. The resulting transfectants expressed the CD8 alpha/CD3 zeta chimeric receptor at the cell surface in the absence of other TCR subunits. Stimulation of these transfectants with anti-T11(2) + anti-T11(3) monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) initiated both a prompt cytosolic free calcium ([Ca2+]i) rise and protein tyrosine kinase activation. Stimulation with either intact anti-T11(2) + anti-T11(3) mAbs or purified F(ab')2 fragments resulted in interleukin 2 (IL-2) secretion. In contrast, control cell lines transfected with a cDNA encoding wild-type CD8 alpha, and thus lacking surface expression of the CD3 zeta cytoplasmic domain, failed to show any [Ca2+]i rise, protein tyrosine kinase activation, or IL-2 secretion after identical stimulation. These data directly establish the CD3 zeta cytoplasmic domain as a necessary and sufficient component of the CD3-Ti complex involved in T lymphocyte activation through CD2. Moreover, they show that CD2 signaling can function in the absence of Fc receptors.