Interleukin-2 (IL-2) is capable of both stimulating an in vitro lymphoproliferative response and augmenting non-major-histocompatibility-complex-(MHC)-restricted cytotoxicity. However, there are conflicting reports about the phenotypes of responding cells. In the present studies, we determined phenotypes of Ficoll/Hypaque-separated peripheral blood mononuclear cells stimulated with 50, 100 or 1000 U/ml IL-2; analyses were performed after 1, 3 and 5 weeks. With all concentrations, there was a progressive increase in CD3+ cells: after 3-5 weeks more than 90% of the cells reacted with this antibody. However, the proportions of CD4+ and CD8+ cells proved to be a function of the IL-2 concentration. Cultures containing 50 U/ml or 100 U/ml favored the expansion of the CD4+ subset. By contrast, in cultures stimulated with 1000 U/ml. CD8+ cells predominated. At baseline, CD8+ cells comprised 28 +/- 2%; after 3 weeks, this value increased to 51 +/- 5%. In addition, the proportion of CD56+ (Leu19, NKH-1) cells depended on the amount of IL-2. At 50 U/ml, there was no appreciable change in CD56+ cells. However, at 1000 U/ml, CD56+ cells increased from 17 +/- 1% (day 0) to 39 +/- 4% (3 weeks). This increase was primarily due to an expansion of the CD3+ CD56+ subset (non-NMC restricted cytotoxic T cells). By contrast, natural killer (NK) cells, as measured by the CD16 antibody, steadily declined at all IL-2 concentrations.