Th cell differentiation from naive precursors is a tightly controlled process; the most critical differentiation factor is the action of the driving cytokine: IL-12 for Th1 development, IL-4 for Th2 development. We found that CD4(+) T cells from nonobese diabetic mice spontaneously differentiate into IFN-gamma-producing Th1 cells in response to polyclonal TCR stimulation in the absence of IL-12 and IFN-gamma. Instead, IL-2 was necessary and sufficient to direct T cell differentiation to the Th1 lineage by nonobese diabetic CD4(+) T cells. Its ability to direct Th1 differentiation of both naive and memory CD4(+) T cells was clearly uncoupled from its ability to stimulate cell division. Autocrine IL-2-driven Th1 differentiation of nonobese diabetic T cells may represent a genetic liability that favors development of IFN-gamma-producing autoreactive T cells.