Activation antigens (actags) were detected on T cells at low levels of intensity by carefully defining negative cells with a panel of control antibodies. The mean percentage of blood T cells from healthy volunteers that expressed actags were 22% (CD25), 54% (CD26), 38% (CD38), 12% (CD54), 6% (CD69) and 21% (HLA-DR). The variability of actag expression detected by this sensitive method was determined on healthy volunteers by repeated estimation over a year. The percentage of T cells expressing CD25 and CD26 varied no more than repeated estimation of the CD4 T cell subset, whereas other actags showed greater variability. The antigen density of these actags on T cells was determined in relation to CD4 antigen density, and for most actags ranged from 10% to 75% of the level of CD4 antigen density except for CD7 and HLA-DR, which could exceed that of CD4. Different degrees of actag expression characterized T cells from different blood and lymphoid tissues. CD26, CD38 and CD45RA were universally expressed in cord blood at higher antigen density than adult blood. This immature pattern was consistent with recent thymic emigration. CD25, CD45RO, CD54 and HLA-DR progressively increased from cord blood through adult blood to lymphoid tissues, consistent with antigen-driven activation, whereas CD26 and CD45RA decreased. CD69, a very early activation antigen, abruptly increased in lymphoid tissue, exceeding CD25 by two-to-three-fold and suggesting a pre-activation state that may not involve commitment to antigen-driven proliferation. CD7 and CD38 expression was higher in cord blood and lymphoid tissue than in adult blood, indicating both an antigen-independent and -dependent up-regulation.