The CD60 antigen is expressed on a majority of T cells in autoimmune lesions, and anti-CD60 can activate T lymphocytes. CD60 has been defined as the GD3 ganglioside, and subsequently as the 9-O-acetylated form of GD3. However, other evidence suggests that anti-CD60 recognizes a glycoprotein or family of glycoproteins expressed by T lymphocytes. The current studies were undertaken to better define the identity of the CD60 antigen on both T cells and non-T cells. Treatment of intact cells with neuraminidases of various specificities confirmed that detection of the CD60 epitope depends on expression of an α2, 8-disialic acid carbohydrate linkage, as is found in GD3 and related gangliosides. However, the sialic acid polymer colominic acid inhibited anti-GD2 and anti-GD3, but not anti-CD60 from binding to cell surfaces. Expression of CD60 did not correlate with expression of GD3 on a variety of cell lines and T cell populations. Expression of CD60 and 9-O-acetyl-GD3 was roughly parallel on some non-T cell lines such as melanoma cells, but on T cells expression of CD60 was consistently greater. Antibodies to GD2, GD3 and 9-O-acetyl-GD3 were ineffective at inhibiting binding of anti-CD60 to CD60+ cells. Activation responses of T cells to anti-CD60 were inducible in either the presence or absence of a response to anti-GD3. A novel inhibitor of glucosyl ceramide synthesis, D-threo-l-phenyl-2-palmitoylamino-3-pyrrolidino-l-propanol (D-t-P4) reduced expression of GD3 much more than CD60 on activated T lymphocytes. Following biotinylation of HUT78 T cells, anti-CD60 immunoprecipitated a 70 kDa antigen. Taken together, the present data and previous findings suggest that anti-CD60 can recognize both a modified form of the GD3 ganglioside and a carbohydrate-dependent complex epitope present on one or more glycoproteins. This glycoprotein epitope may be the more abundant and functionally significant CD60 antigen on T lymphocytes, while 9-O-acetyl-GD3 is likely to be the principal structure recognized by anti-CD60 on melanoma cells. These findings emphasize the complexity of understanding the functional roles of carbohydrate epitopes in cell activation.