We have demonstrated that endothelial cells (EC) augment IL-2 production by PHA-stimulated PBMC or purified CD4+ T cells and that the increase is apparent both in the amount of soluble IL-2 secreted and in the level of specific mRNA detectable by Northern blot hybridization. The ability of EC to affect levels of IL-2 cannot be reproduced by soluble factors, including the cytokines IL-1, IL-6, IFN-gamma, or TNF, conditioned medium from resting EC or IL-1, IFN-gamma- or TNF-treated EC, or from resting PBMC + EC cultures. Separation of the EC and PBMC by a Transwell membrane demonstrated that cell contact was required for augmentation of IL-2 synthesis and that this effect was unlikely to be mediated by a short-lived soluble signal. The cell-cell interaction required the ligand pair CD2/LFA-3, since augmentation could be inhibited by antibodies to these structures. Antibodies to ICAM-1, LFA-1, CD4, and MHC class II were without effect. A contact-dependent pathway involving CD2/LFA-3 interactions also may be used by EC to augment IL-2 production from T cells stimulated more specifically through the TCR/CD3 complex with antibody OKT3. This pathway provides a proliferative advantage to T cells stimulated with OKT3 in the presence of EC and may also be involved in the proliferative response of resting T cells to allogeneic class II MHC-expressing EC. We propose that EC augmentation of T cell IL-2 synthesis may be critical in the ability of EC to elicit primary T cell antigen responses and may have consequences for the development of localized cell-mediated immune reactions.