In an attempt to understand the mechanisms of immunodeficiency induced by human T lymphotropic virus type I (HTLV-I), HSV-specific CD4+ human multifunctional T cell clones were infected with HTLV-I in vitro. Early after HTLV-I infection, when their growth was still IL-2-dependent, clones were found to have almost completely lost their cytotoxic activity. At that time, their HSV-Ag-induced proliferative response and helper function for anti-HSV antibody production by B cells were only partially impaired. After this initial phase, the HTLV-I-infected clone became IL-2-independent, and the helper function was also completely lost. IL-2-dependent HTLV-I-infected clones showed degrees of proliferative response and elevation of intracellular free Ca2+ concentration induced by anti-CD3 mAb equivalent to those of HTLV-I-uninfected clones. On the other hand, during the IL-2-independent stage, expression of CD3-TCR complex on the cell surface was markedly decreased, and no significant elevation of intracellular free Ca2+ concentration was detected in response to anti-CD3 mAb. These data indicated that the loss of cytotoxic activity of HSV-specific T cell clones observed early after HTLV-I infection was not the result of impaired antigen recognition via the CD3-TCR complex, but might be due to dysfunction in the effector phase. On the other hand, the dysfunction of helper activity found late after HTLV-I infection might have mainly occurred in the recognition phase due to the decreased expression of CD3-TCR complex. The present data appear to suggest certain aspects of the pathogenesis of the immunodeficiency occurring in HTLV-I infection.