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Diabetes was induced in a normal nonautoimmune rat strain by rendering the animals relatively T cell deficient using a protocol of adult thymectomy and sublethal gamma irradiation. All male rats and 70% of females developed an acute syndrome with severe loss of weight and hyperglycemia. Diabetes in these lymphopoenic rats was associated with extensive insulitis involving CD4+ and CD8+ T cells and macrophages. The CD8+ T cells were essential for the development of diabetes but not insulitis. The autoimmune diabetes and insulitis were completely prevented by the injection of a particular CD4+ T cell subset, isolated from healthy syngeneic donors, of the phenotype CD45RClow T cell receptor alpha/beta+ RT6+ Thy-1- OX-40-. Cells of this protective phenotype, which make up about 5% of thoracic duct lymphocytes, were found to provide help for secondary antibody responses and produce interleukin 2 (IL-2) and IL-4, but no interferon gamma, on in vitro activation. These data provide evidence for the presence of autoreactive T cells in the normal immune system of the rat and reveal that in the intact animal these cells are prevented from expressing their autoreactive potential by other T cells.