The "holy grail" of allogeneic stem cell transplantation is to preserve the graft-versus-tumor (GVT) effect while eliminating graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). Endogenous donor-derived interleukin 15 (IL-15) has been implicated in the pathogenesis of acute GVHD, yet the mechanism by which it impacts this lethal process remains unclear. Using the well-described and clinically relevant C57BL/63 → B6D2F1 murine model of acute GVHD, we demonstrate that in trans presentation of IL-15 by donor bone marrow-derived cells is required for the rapid onset of acute GVHD. Recipients of IL-15 -/- C57BL/6 bone marrow cells show diminished type 1 polarization of T cells, yet there is no decrease in donor T-cell reconstitution. A molecular basis for these findings is provided with the observation that expression of T-bet, the master control gene for type 1 T-cell functions, is necessary for IL-15-mediated acute GVHD lethality. Finally, we demonstrate that in the absence of donor-derived IL-15, the GVT effect is maintained. These findings thus establish a mechanism by which endogenous donor-derived IL-15 impacts the pathobiology of acute GVHD and GVT activity.