T helper type 0 (Th0), Th1, and Th2 CD4 + T cell clones derived from a T cell receptor α/β (TCR-α/β) transgenic mouse were activated by antigen presented on 'artificial' antigen-presenting cells that expressed or lacked the costimulatory molecule B7-1, and were analyzed for single cell cytokine mRNA expression by in situ hybridization. There was significant heterogeneity in the frequency of T cells that expressed individual cytokine mRNAs within each clonal population, suggesting that transcriptional control of each of the cytokine genes was not coordinate within an individual cell. The majority of antigen-stimulated Th1 cells expressed mRNA for interferon γ (IFN-γ), but far fewer cells in the same population expressed interleukin 2 (IL-2). Similarly, the frequency of IL-4-expressing cells was greater than that of IL-5- or IL-10-expressing cells in the same Th2 population, but the difference in expression frequencies was more variable between clones. The expression frequencies of each of the cytokines was quite heterogeneous in the antigen-activated Th0 population. The principal effect of increased antigen on the activation of individual cytokine genes in each of the clonal populations was to increase recruitment of mRNA-positive cells, with little or no effect on the level of cytokine mRNA expression in individual positive cells. The effects of B7 costimulation were variable depending on the cytokine gene analyzed. B7 costimulation markedly increased the frequency and the level of IL-2 mRNA expression in individual positive cells in the Th1 and Th0 populations, with less effect on the recruitment and single cell expression level of IFN-γ. IL-4 frequencies were modestly increased by B7 costimulation of the Th2 clones, but there was no detectable increase in single cell IL-4 expression level. The observed patterns of cytokine mRNA expression favor a model of T cell activation in which all-or-none, rather than graded, responses of cytokine genes are dominant.