One hypothesis seeking to explain the signaling and biological properties of T cell receptor for antigen (TCR) partial agonists and antagonists is the coreceptor density/kinetic model, which proposes that the pharmacologic behavior of a TCR ligand is largely determined by the relative rates of (a) dissociation ofligand from an engaged TCR and (b) recruitment oflck-linked coreceptors to this ligand-engaged receptor. Using several approaches to prevent or reduce the association of CD4 with occupied TCR, we demonstrate that consistent with this hypothesis, the biological and biochemical consequence of limiting this interaction is to convert typical agonists into partial agonist stimuli. Thus, adding anti-CD4 antibody to T cells recognizing a wild-type peptide-MHC class II ligand leads to disproportionate inhibition of interleukin-2 (IL-2) relative to IL-3 production, the same pattern seen using a TCR partial agonist/antagonist. In addition, T cells exposed to wild-type ligand in the presence of anti-CD4 antibodies show a pattern of TCR signaling resembling that seen using partial agonists, with predominant accumulation of the p21 tyrosine-phosphorylated form of TCR-zeta, reduced tyrosine phosphorylation of CD3epsilon, and no detectable phosphorylation of ZAP-70. Similar results are obtained when the wild-type ligand is presented by mutant class II MHC molecules unable to bind CD4. Likewise, antibody coligation of CD3 and CD4 results in an agonist-like phosphorylation pattern, whereas bivalent engagement of CD3 alone gives a partial agonist-like pattern. Finally, in accord with data showing that partial agonists often induce T cell anergy, CD4 blockade during antigen exposure renders cloned T cells unable to produce IL-2 upon restimulation. These results demonstrate that the biochemical and functional responses to variant TCR ligands with partial agonist properties can be largely reproduced by inhibiting recruitment of CD4 to a TCR binding a wild-type ligand, consistent with the idea that the relative rates of TCR-ligand disengagement and of association of engaged TCR with CD4 may play a key role in determining the pharmacologic properties of peptide-MHC molecule ligands. Beyond this insight into signaling through the TCR, these results have implications for models of thymocyte selection and the use of anti-coreceptor antibodies in vivo for the establishment ofimmunological tolerance.