bcl-2 proto-oncogene encodes an inner mitochondrial membrane protein that blocks programmed cell death (apoptosis). There is now increasing evidence that regulation of bcl-2 expression is a determinant of life or death in normal lymphocytes. We have recently described that activated (CD45RO+) CD4+ and CD8+ T cells in acute infectious mononucleosis (IM) undergo apoptotic cell death on culturing, indicating an activation-driven cell death of mature T cells. In this work, we examine bcl-2 expression by activated T cells in acute IM using a flow-cytometric analysis with an anti-bcl-2 monoclonal antibody (MoAb). It was consistently observed that most T cells from acute IM patients displayed only much less bcl-2, while normal T cells expressed bcl-2 relatively strongly. Multicolor analysis showed that bcl-2- lacking T cells in acute IM were restricted to the CD45RO+ (activated) populations of CD4+, as well as CD8+ T cells. In contrast, the relatively intense levels of bcl-2 were expressed in both CD45RO+ and CD45RO- T-cell populations from normal subjects. This marked difference in bcl-2 expression of CD45RO+ T cells between acute IM and normal controls was also confirmed by Western blot analysis. Activated (CD45RO+) T cells with low bcl-2 expression, but not bcl-2-expressing CD45RO- T cells, in acute IM patients were found to die easily when cultured without added growth factors. However, in normal individuals, both CD45RO+ and CD45RO- T cells were relatively stable on culturing. These findings suggest that lack of bcl-2 expression by activated (CD45RO+) T cells in acute IM might be associated with their susceptibility to programmed cell death.