The present study shows that recombinant interleukin 2 (IL-2) purified to homogeneity induces a rapid and potent enhancement of spontaneous cytotoxicity of human peripheral blood lymphocytes. The cells mediating cytotoxicity after 18-h treatment with IL-2 have surface markers of natural killer (NK) cells and are generated from the peripheral blood subset containing spontaneous cytotoxic cells. A parallel production of gamma interferon (IFN-gamma) is induced by recombinant IL-2 (rIL-2), and NK cells appear to be the major producer cells, whereas T cells are unable to produce IFN-gamma under these experimental conditions. However, the kinetics of the enhancement of cytotoxicity are faster than those of IFN-gamma production, and monoclonal anti-IFN-gamma antibodies do not suppress this effect, making it unlikely that the IFN-gamma produced is responsible for the enhancement. The enhancement of NK cell activity induced by rIL-2 precedes any proliferative response of the lymphocytes, which is instead observed in longer-term cultures of both NK and T cells.