Interleukin-12 (IL-12) induces differentiation of T helper 1 (Th1) cells, primarily through its ability to prime T cells for high interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) production. We now report that the presence of IL-12 during the first several days of in vitro clonal expansion in limiting dilution cultures of polyclonally stimulated human peripheral blood CD4+ and CD8+ T cells also induces stable priming for high IL-10 production. This effect was demonstrated with T cells from both healthy donors and HIV+ patients. Priming for IL-4 production, which requires IL-4, was maximum in cultures containing both IL-12 and IL-4. IL-4 modestly inhibited the IL-12-induced priming for IFN-gamma, but almost completely suppressed the priming for IL-10 production. A proportion of the clones generated from memory CD45RO+ cells, but not those generated from naive CD45RO- CD4+ T cells, produced some combinations of IFN-gamma, IL-10, and IL-4 even in the absence of IL-12 and IL-4, suggesting in vivo cytokine priming; virtually all CD4+ clones generated from either CD45RO(-) or (+) cells, however, produced high levels of both IFN-gamma and IL-10 when IL-12 was present during expansion. These results indicate that each Th1-type (IFN-gamma) and Th2-type (IL-4 and IL-10) cytokine gene is independently regulated in human T cells and that the dichotomy between T cells with the cytokine production pattern of Th1 and Th2 cells is not due to a direct differentiation-inducing effect of immunoregulatory cytokines, but rather to secondary selective mechanisms. Particular combinations of cytokines induce a predominant generation of T cell clones with anomalous patterns of cytokine production (e.g., IFN-gamma and IL-4 or IFN-gamma and IL-10) that can also be found in a proportion of fresh peripheral blood T cells with "memory" phenotype or clones generated from them and that may identify novel Th subsets with immunoregulatory functions.