Interleukin 21 (IL-21) is a recently identified novel cytokine that plays an important role in the regulation of B, T, and NK cell functions. Its effects depend on binding to and signaling through an IL-21 receptor complex consisting of the IL-21 receptor (IL-21R) and the common gamma-chain (gamma(c)). In this study using biosensor technique, the ligand-binding properties of IL-21R and gamma(c), which are presently poorly understood on a molecular level, were analyzed employing recombinant ectodomains of IL-21R and gamma(c). The formation of a binary complex between IL-21 and immobilized IL-21R (K(D) 70pM), gamma(c) and immobilized IL-21 (K(D) 160 microM) and a ternary complex between gamma(c) and IL-21 saturated immobilized IL-21R (K(D) 160nM) could be analyzed. The gamma(c) residues involved in IL-21 binding were defined by alanine-scanning mutational analysis. The epitope comprises gamma(c) residues N44, Y103, N128, L161, E162, and L208. It is not identical but partially overlapping with the previously established gamma(c) epitope for IL-4 binding. These results open the way to understand the molecular recognition mechanism in the IL-21 receptor system and also the promiscuous binding properties of gamma(c).