The mechanism(s) underlying the potent accessory cell function of dendritic cells (DC) remains unclear. The possibility was considered that a soluble factor(s) released during the interaction of DC and T cells might contribute to the potent T cell activating function of DC. Culture supernatants were generated from mixtures of murine spleen DC and periodate-treated spleen T cells and were examined for the presence of known cytokine activities and factors capable of enhancing T cell responsiveness to IL-2. Serum-free supernatants from 24 h DC-T cell co-cultures exhibited high levels of IL-2, detectable levels of IL-3, and negligible levels of IL-1, -4, -5, -6, and TNF. A factor(s) was also identified with an apparent M(r) of 12.5 to 17.0 kDa, henceforth designated IL-2 enhancing factor (IL-2EF), which enhanced the IL-2-induced proliferation of murine thymocytes, CTLL, and HT-2 cells by approximately three- to fourfold. This enhancement was also observed in the presence of neutralizing antibodies to murine IL-1α, -1β, -3, -4, -5, -6, granulocyte-macrophage (GM)-CSF, TNF, and IFN-γ. However, IL-2EF failed to enhance: 1) the activity of IL-1, -3, -4, -5, or -6 on cells responsive to these cytokines; 2) IL-2-augmented, IL-5-induced BCL1 proliferation; and 3) either PHA- or Con A-stimulated thymocyte proliferation. Moreover, neither IFN-γ nor GM-CSF exhibited IL-2EF activity. When DC and T cells were cultured separately (after an initial 12 h co-culture period), IL-2EF activity resided predominantly in the T cell-derived supernatants. These and other data indicate that IL-2EF, a heat-labile T cell-derived 12.5 to 17.0 kDa protein, is distinct from IL-1α, -1β, -2, -3, -4, -5, -6, TNF, IFN-γ, GM-CSF, and previously described factors that co-stimulate thymocyte proliferation in the presence of Con A or PHA. It is suggested that IL-2EF functions to specifically enhance IL-2-driven T cell proliferation and contributes to the potent activation of T cells induced by DC.