We investigated the effect of OKT3 antibody and interleukin 2 (IL-2) on Tac antigen expression and the proliferation of human peripheral blood mononuclear leukocytes. OKT3 monoclonal antibody at low, nonmitogenic concentrations (25 pg/ml) or IL-2 alone at optimal concentrations (20 U/ml) did not induce IL-2 receptor expression, as measured by Tac antibody or by T cell proliferation. However, costimulation with these concentrations of OKT3 antibody and IL-2 led to Tac antigen expression and T cell proliferation. These data suggest that the T cells are activated in two steps: OKT3 antibody at 25 pg/ml does not induce Tac antigen expression, but preactivates T cells to become responsive to IL-2. The addition of exogenous IL-2 then leads to expression of the IL-2 receptor, as recognized by Tac antibody, and to subsequent proliferation.