Six-day allosensitized human peripheral blood lymphocytes treated for 12-18 hr with phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) were found to lose the capacity to kill the specific target in a standard cell-mediated lympholysis (CML) assay, but they were still effective in their ability to kill the tumor cell line K562. We investigated which antigens on the cell membrane involved in alloimmune recognition might be modified by PMA, since it was found that in a lectin-dependent CML assay, the lytic mechanism was not impaired. For this purpose, T3+, T4+ allospecific cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) clones and either T3+ or T3- natural killer (NK) clones were generated from 6-day allostimulated lymphocytes. The results indicated that PMA inhibited the cytolytic function of both alloimmune CTL and NK T3+ clones. In contrast, PMA did not modify the effector cell function of T3- NK clones. Phenotypic analysis of T-cell surface antigens from T3+ clones showed that T3 molecule expression on the cell membrane was reduced by 80-90% after PMA treatment, whereas expression of both accessory T4 molecules, involved in antigen recognition, and receptor for interleukin 2 was increased. Moreover, the loss of function was transitory and could be restored 4 days after PMA treatment when the T3 molecules were fully reexpressed at the cell surface. Taken together, these data strongly suggest that (i) PMA prevents cell-mediated cytotoxicity by modulating the disulfide-linked heterodimer associated to T3 and described as the receptor for antigen on the cell surface of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) and non-MHC specific CTL clones, without affecting the lytic mechanism per se, and (ii) the expression of the receptor for the antigen present on the tumor cell line K562 is not decreased on T3- NK clones after PMA treatment and must be different from that on T3+ T-cell clones.