Although interleukin-2 (IL-2) was initially characterized as the primary T-cell growth factor following in vitro activation, less is known about its role in shaping T-cell responses to acute infections in vivo. The use of IL-2- or IL-2-receptor-deficient mice is problematic owing to their early development of autoimmunity, attributable to the central role of IL-2 in the generation, maintenance and function of CD4+CD25+ regulatory T cells. To bypass these inherent difficulties, we have studied the effect of IL-2 on T-cell responses to acute infections by adopting a mixed chimaera strategy in which T cells lacking the high-affinity IL-2 receptor could be studied in an otherwise healthy mouse containing a full complement of regulatory T cells. Here we show that although IL-2 signalling to pathogen-specific CD8+ T cells affects the number of developing effector and memory cells very little, it is required for the generation of robust secondary responses. This is not due to an altered T-cell-receptor repertoire development or selection, and does not reflect an acute requirement for IL-2 during secondary activation and expansion. Rather, we demonstrate a previously unappreciated role for IL-2 during primary infection in programming the development of CD8+ memory T cells capable of full secondary expansion. These results have important implications for the development of vaccination or immunotherapeutic strategies aimed at boosting memory T-cell function.