CD28 is a 44-kD homodimer expressed on the surface of the majority of human T cells that provides an important costimulus for T cell activation. The biochemical basis of the CD28 accessory signals is poorly understood. Triggering of the T cell antigen receptor (TCR) activates the p21ras proteins. Here we show that ligation of CD28 by a monoclonal antibody (mAb) also stimulates p21ras and induces Ras-dependent events such as stimulation of the microtubule-associated protein (MAP) kinase ERK2 and hyperphosphorylation of Raf-1. One physiological ligand for CD28 is the molecule B7-1. In contrast to the effect of CD28 mAb, the present studies show that interactions between CD28 and B7-1 do not stimulate p21 r-s signaling pathways. Two substrates for TCR-regulated protein tyrosine kinases (PTKs) have been implicated in p21ras activation in T cells: p95Vav and a 36-kD protein that associates with a complex of Grb2 and the Ras exchange protein Sos. Triggering CD28 with both antibodies and B7-1 activates cellular PTKs, and we have exploited the differences between antibodies and B7-1 for p21 -'s activation in an attempt to identify critical PTK-controlled events for Ras activation in T cells. The data show that antibodies against TCR or CD28 induce tyrosine phosporylation of both Vav and p36. B7-1 also induces Vav tyrosine phosphorylation but has no apparent effect on tyrosine phosphorylation of the Grb2- associated p36 protein. The intensity of the Vav tyrosine phosphorylation is greater in B7-1 than in TCR-stimulated cells. Moreover the kinetics of Vav tyrosine phosphorylation is prolonged in the B7-1-stimulated cells. These studies show that for CD28 signaling, the activation of p21ras correlates more closely with p36 tyrosine phosphorylation than with Vav tyrosine phosphorylation. However, the experiments demonstrate that Vav is a major substrate for B7-activated PTKs and hence could be important in CD28 signal transduction pathway.