The growth factor, IL-2, was administered to mice to evaluate the in vivo responsiveness of NK cells to this factor. The immediate effects of this factor on NK cells were determined by examining cytotoxic activity at 18-24 h after a single treatment with rIL-2. Although moderate doses of rIL-2 (3 x 10(4) U) could be shown to activate existing cytotoxic cells on a per cell basis, higher doses (10(6) U) were required to elicit blast size killer cells. The elicited killer cells were characterized as NK cells by the following criteria: (a) they were readily induced in athymic mice; (b) they mediated killing of NK-sensitive YAC-1 target cells but not NK-resistant P815 target cells; and (c) they expressed the NK cell determinants asialo ganglio-n-tetraosylceramide and NK1.1, but not the T cell determinants CD3, L3T4, or Lyt-2. High-dose IL-2 treatment induced not only the appearance of blast size NK cells, but also the expansion of this population. After treatments, the number of large granular lymphocytes and the number of NK1.1+ cells were increased at least twofold. Analysis of DNA content within the NK1.1+ cell subset demonstrated that IL-2 preferentially drove NK1.1+ cells into S and G2/M phases of the cell cycle. The in vivo elicited blast lymphocytes were examined by Northern blot analysis and in situ hybridization for expression of the IL-2-R p55 alpha chain gene. As previous work from this laboratory has demonstrated that NK cells proliferate in response to IFNs and IFN inducers in vivo, blast lymphocytes were also prepared after IFN treatments. The NK cells were not induced to express detectable levels of the alpha chain gene under any of the conditions examined. Blast T lymphocytes, isolated at times during viral infections when IL-2 production can be demonstrated in vitro, were induced to transcribe the alpha chain gene. Treatments of euthymic mice with high-dose IL-2 also induced transcription of the alpha chain gene in 41% of the non-B blast lymphocytes, but only background percentages of the NK1.1+ cells expressed the alpha chain gene. Transcription of the alpha chain gene was not induced in the NK cell-abundant athymic mice after IL-2 treatment. All of the in vivo elicited blast lymphocytes were induced to express IFN-gamma. Taken together, these data definitively demonstrate that IL-2 can induce NK cell proliferation and expansion in vivo. They also show that exposure to IL-2 in vivo, either by administration or endogenous production of the factor, induces transcription of the IL-2-R alpha chain gene in populations of cells containing T cell subsets. The results suggest, however, that murine NK cells are not induced to express high levels of the alpha chain gene in response to IL-2 in vivo.