Crude antigen preparations of Leishmania promastigote sonicates were found to induce in vitro proliferation and gamma interferon production in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from individuals without known exposure to the parasite. The proliferating cells were mainly CD2-positive T cells. The proliferative response was maximal after more than 6 days of incubation with the antigens in contrast to the proliferation induced by the mitogenic lectin phytohemagglutinin (PHA), which peaked after 3 to 5 days. Judged by limiting dilution analysis, the frequencies of antigen-reactive precursor cells were less than 1:10,000 and varied considerably between individuals. Depletion of CD45R0-positive (memory) cells from the PBMC abolished proliferative responses induced by Leishmania antigen and by tetanus toxoid. In cell populations depleted of CD45RA-positive (naive) cells, only a small reduction in response was observed. Cell populations depleted of either CD45R0-positive cells or CD45RA-positive cells both responded to PHA. We conclude that presumably unexposed individuals have a low number of Leishmania-reactive T cells in their circulatory systems. The Leishmania-reactive T cells in these individuals are most likely memory cells recognizing antigens present both in the Leishmania preparations and in the environment.