T cell mitogens induce the expression of specific trans-acting DNA binding proteins that in turn regulate the expression of the interleukin-2 receptor-alpha (IL-2R alpha) gene. To investigate whether de novo protein synthesis is required for the activation of these transacting factors and the induced expression of this receptor gene, Jurkat T cells were incubated with various inhibitors of protein synthesis prior to stimulation with phytohemagglutinin and phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA). Despite the presence of cycloheximide or anisomycin at concentrations sufficient to block greater than 97% of cellular protein synthesis, phytohemagglutinin and phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate effectively induced the expression of the IL-2R alpha gene as measured at the mRNA level. Similarly, gel retardation, DNA footprinting, and DNA-protein cross-linking studies revealed that these mitogens induced the activation of two predominant DNA binding proteins (50-55 and 80-90 kDa) in the presence or absence of cycloheximide and anisomycin. Both of these proteins specifically interacted with a kappa B-like binding site present in the IL-2R alpha promoter (-267 to -256) that is requisite for mitogen-induced expression of this receptor gene. These findings support a post-translational mechanism of induction of pre-existing, but inactive, DNA binding proteins which in turn bind to and activate the IL-2R alpha gene.