A novel IL-2 receptor, distinct from the Tac protein, has been identified on the surface of purified human natural killer (NK) cells by chemical cross-linking of 125I-IL-2. This protein is approximately 70,000 D in size (p70) and appears to be identical to the recently recognized second subunit of the human high affinity IL-2 receptor complex. Scatchard analysis of 125I-IL-2 binding to purified NK cells revealed approximately 2,300 p70 binding sites per cell with an apparent dissociation constant of 200 pM, a value intermediate between the previously recognized high and low affinity forms of the human IL-2 receptor. The monoclonal anti-Tac antibody did not inhibit the cross-linking of 125I-IL-2 to the p70 binding sites present on NK cells. Functionally, the addition of high concentrations of recombinant IL-2 to the enriched NK cells promoted a rapid augmentation of cytolytic activity and a more delayed increase in cellular proliferation. Anti-Tac effectively blocked the IL-2-induced proliferative response in these cells, but failed to alter the enhancement of cytotoxicity. Analysis of NK cytoplasmic RNA isolated at various time points after IL-2 stimulation revealed the rapid induction of c-myb and Tac gene expression that was also not inhibited by the anti-Tac antibody. These findings suggest that IL-2 binding to the p70 receptor constitutively expressed on the surface of NK cells may mediate both the development of increased cytolytic activity and rapid changes in gene expression. The activation of the Tac gene may in turn permit the formation of the high affinity IL-2 receptor complex (comprised of at least the Tac and p70 proteins) that appears to transduce the requisite signals involved in NK cell proliferation.