A method was developed to purify transiently transfected HeLa cells or African green monkey kidney CV-1 cells by magnetic affinity cell sorting. Monolayer cultures were transfected with mammalian expression vectors coding for either of two novel cell surface antigens, the Tac subunit of the human IL-2 receptor or vesicular stomatitis virus G protein. During the transient expression phase, cell populations were placed in suspension and mixed with monoclonal-antibody-coated magnetic particles in the presence of a sorting solution designed to minimize nonspecific cell/cell and cell/particle interactions. Transfected cells expressing the vector-encoded cell surface antigen were then isolated by application of a magnetic field. Reconstruction experiments indicated that IL-2 receptor-positive cells were bound about 100-fold more efficiently than receptor-negative cells. In transient transfection experiments, populations of greater than 90% antigen-positive cells were reproducibly obtained.