We have investigated the ability of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) to alter the production of interleukin-2 (IL-2) and to bind to a specific binding complex in antiCD3 epsilon activated T cells. Binding activity correlated with the presence of a specific DHEA binding complex in the cytosol and nuclei of DHEA-responsive T-cell hybridomas, as well as in CD4+ and CD8+ cells isolated from peripheral lymph nodes of normal mice. Scatchard analysis determined that intact lymphocytes and cytosolic fractions contained high affinity binding for [3H]DHEA (approx. 2.6 nM) with 1000-7000 binding sites existing per cell. Five of the T-cell hybridomas tested both responded to DHEA treatment with increased production of IL-2 and also contained specific high affinity [3H]DHEA binding. Four additional T-cell hybridomas were found to contain no specific [3H]DHEA binding and were also unresponsive to DHEA influences on IL-2 production. Sucrose density gradients demonstrated a 3-4s [3H]DHEA binding complex in high salt and a 7-8s binding complex in low salt. Specific binding was inhibited by preincubation of the cytosol fractions with either trypsin or chymotrypsin, or by heating to 60 degrees C for 1 h (less than 15% of control). [3H]DHEA binding was unaffected by preincubation of the cytosol fractions with ribonuclease, deoxyribonuclease, or phospholipase A. The DHEA-protein complexes bound to DNA-cellulose with the amount of binding being slightly increased by preincubation at 25 degrees C as compared to 4 degrees C. As expected, [3H]DHEA binding was inhibited by the addition of unlabeled DHEA, but was also modestly inhibited by dihydrotestosterone and cortisol. Binding of DHEA was unaffected by progesterone, dexamethasone, estradiol, androsterone, DHEAS, and beta-etiocholanolone at all concentrations tested. DHEA was incapable of inhibiting the binding of [3H]DHT to the androgen receptor or [3H]dexamethasone to the glucocorticoid receptor. Collectively, these findings suggest that murine T cells contain a specific DHEA receptor. We believe that DHEA is a steroid hormone that is directly involved in the regulation of IL-2 production by both normal and some T-cell hybridomas.