Human umbilical cord blood T lymphocytes (CBTL) respond to primary allostimulation but they do not proliferate upon rechallenge with alloantigen. Using PKH-26-labeled cells created a proliferative block that was observed only in CBTL that have divided during primary stimulation (PKH-26dim) but not in unstimulated (PKH-26bright) CBTL. CBTL’s secondary unresponsiveness resembles anergy and can be overcome by treatment with phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) and ionomycin or by high doses (50–100 units/ml) of interleukin 2. Addition of interleukin 2 to the primary cultures does not prevent the induction of secondary unresponsiveness. Defective Ras activation is detected in PKH-26dim CBTL during secondary response to alloantigen or after antibody-mediated T cell receptor stimulation whereas Ras is activated and proliferation is induced in CBTL during primary alloantigenic stimulation. Upon stimulation with PMA plus ionomycin, PMA plus alloantigen, but not alloantigen plus ionomycin, Ras is activated in PKH-26dim CBTL, and the block in proliferation is overcome. Correction of PKH-26dim CBTL’s proliferative defect correlates with PMA-induced Ras activation, suggesting a defect in the signaling pathway leading to Ras. Ras-independent signals, necessary but not sufficient to induce PKH-26dim CBTL proliferation, are provided by alloantigen exposure, as evident by the ability of PMA plus alloantigen but not PMA alone to overcome the proliferative block. Functional signal transduction through CD28 in PKH-26dim CBTL is supported by detectable CD28-mediated PI-3 kinase activation after PKH-26dim CBTL’s exposure to alloantigen or CD28 cross-linking. These results suggest that defective activation of Ras plays a key role in PKH-26dim CBTL’s secondary unresponsiveness and point to a defect along the T cell receptor rather than the CD28 signaling pathway.