CD2 subserves both adhesion and signal transduction functions in T cells, thymocytes, and natural killer (NK) cells. In mature T lymphocytes, CD2-mediated signaling function apparently requires surface expression of T cell receptors (TCRs). In contrast, in CD2+ CD3- NK cells and thymocytes, signal transduction through CD2 is TCR independent. To resolve this paradox and characterize TCR-independent triggering mechanisms, we transfected a human CD2 cDNA into a murine mast cell line, C1.MC/57 (Fc epsilon RI+, Fc gamma RII+, Fc gamma RIII+), which is known to produce interleukin 6 (IL-6) as well as release histamine in response to crosslinking of Fc epsilon RI. In the CD2 transfectant, a combination of anti-T11(2) + anti-T11(3) monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) induced a rise in intracellular free calcium [( Ca2+]i), IL-6 production, and histamine release. As expected, no activation was mediated by the same mAbs in C1.MC/57. F(ab)'s fragments of the activatory combination of anti-T11(2) + anti-T11(3) mAbs induced IL-6 in the CD2-transfected mast cells, demonstrating an Fc gamma receptor ectodomain-independent triggering mechanism. In addition, either intact anti-T11(2) or anti-T11(3) IgG alone, which failed to induce [Ca2+]i mobilization in the transfectant, was able to induce IL-6 production. A mAb directed against both Fc gamma RII (previously denoted as Fc gamma RIIb) and Fc gamma RIII (previously denoted as Fc gamma RIIa) inhibits this induction. These results indicate that: (a) Ca2+ mobilization is not essential for IL-6 production; and (b) crosslinking of CD2 and Fc gamma receptors via intact anti-CD2 IgG stimulates IL-6 production. Thus, CD2-mediated IL-6 production occurs by both Fc receptor ectodomain-independent as well as Fc receptor ectodomain-dependent mechanisms in these nonlymphoid cells. Northern blot analysis demonstrates that although the mast cells do not express CD3 zeta or CD3 eta mRNA, they express Fc epsilon RI gamma mRNA. The latter is a known component of Fc gamma RIII as well as Fc epsilon RI, has significant homology to CD3 zeta/eta, and is thought to have a signal transduction function. In these mast cells, CD2 signaling machinery does not require CD3 zeta/eta and may be linked to the Fc epsilon RI gamma subunit. We predict that this subunit or a related structure may confer a TCR-independent signal transduction pathway upon CD2 in CD3- NK cells, thymocytes, and certain B lymphocytes.