To better understand the requirement for interleukin 2 (IL-2) in specific immune responses, we have established the use of cell ablation to selectively eliminate T cells that produce IL-2. To accomplish this we have generated transgenic mice that express the herpes simplex virus 1-thymidine kinase (HSV-TK) gene under the transcriptional control of the murine IL-2 promoter that renders IL-2-producing cells sensitive to the cytotoxic effects of the antiviral drug ganciclovir (GANC). HSV-TK activity was specifically expressed in activated T cells from transgenic mice. When CD4 T cells from transgenic mice were stimulated with the superantigen staphylococcal enterotoxin A (SEA) in the presence of GANC, proliferation and IL-2 production were almost completely inhibited and the activated CD4+V beta 3+ T cell population, eliminated. Proliferation was not restored by adding IL-2, showing that most proliferating cells are not bystander cells. In contrast, the proliferative response to concanavalin A (Con A) was only partially inhibited by treatment of CD4 T cells with GANC, although the efficiency of eliminating IL-2-producing cells was shown to be comparable with that achieved using SEA. This suggests that a portion of the proliferative response to Con A occurs via an alternative pathway not requiring IL-2 synthesis and release.