In vitro ultraviolet B (UVB) irradiation of human blood monocytes inhibits their accessory cell function for antigen- and mitogen-induced T cell responses. These studies were designed to characterize the nature of the UVB-induced defect in human monocyte accessory cell function. Irradiated monocytes were deficient in their ability to serve as accessory cells for OKT3-induced T cell activation. In vitro exposure of monocytes to 100 J/m2 UVB completely inhibited the T cell proliferative response (51502 cpm, non-UVB-irradiated; 302 cpm, UVB-irradiated). Analysis of the accessory signals altered by UVB indicated that irradiated monocytes were incapable of binding to OKT3 molecules attached to the CD3 antigen on T cells. Provision of an alternative mechanism for binding of OKT3 molecules by attaching anti-mouse IgG to the bottom of microtiter wells completely restored accessory cell function. Further characterization of the defect demonstrated that UVB radiation did not deplete p72 Fc receptors from the surface of irradiated monocytes. However, UVB exposure did produce a dose-dependent decrease in monocyte membrane expression of ICAM-1. It is proposed that UVB radiation leads to changes within the cell membrane that inhibit the ability of monocytes to express selected molecules necessary for binding of T cells.