Using monoclonal antibodies to cell surface antigens and fluorescent cell sorter analysis, we studied peripheral blood lymphocyte subsets after bone marrow transplantation (BMT). In 13 patients studied 3 mo or more after BMT, the ratio of T-cell subsets defined by antibodies OKT4 and OKT8 was reversed (OKT4/OK%8 = 0.7 +/- 0.3) in comparison to normal volunteers or bone marrow donors (ratio OKT4/OKT8 = 1.7 +/- 0.4) (p less than 0.001). This reversed ratio persisted for up to 3 yr after BMT. In contrast to a previous report, presence of an abnormal ratio of T-cell subsets did not correlate with clinically significant graft- versus-host disease (GVHD). In agreement with a previous study, (26% +/- 8%; less than 4% in normals (p less than 0.001) and antibody OKT10 reactive cells (39% +/- 20% versus 10% +/- 4%) (p less than 0.01), suggesting in vivo activation. However, their PBL did not react with antibody B3/25 (antitransferrin receptor), a marker found on normal PBL after in vitro activation by mitogens (BMT patients less than 5%; normal PBL T cells plus PHA 45% +/- 11%). These results demonstrate that BMT patients have: (A) an abnormal ratio of T-cell subsets in the presence or absence of clinically significant GVDH disease so that these measurements were not useful in monitoring patients; (B) an increased number of T cells with cell surface phenotype (OKT8+, Ia+, OKT10+, B3/25-) that is distinct from normals but similar to patients with infectious mononucleosis or acquired hypogammaglobulinemia.