Jurkat T cell lines constitutively expressing Tax, the 40-kilodalton transactivator protein of human T lymphotropic virus type I (HTLV-I), were used to investigate the mechanism by which this viral product deregulates the expression of the interleukin-2 receptor alpha gene (IL-2R alpha, Tac). Transfection of deleted forms of the IL-2R alpha promoter and in vitro DNA-binding studies revealed that a 12-base pair promoter segment, which has homology with the binding site for NF-kappa B, was required for Tax-induced activation of the IL-2R alpha promoter in vivo. An 18-base pair oligonucleotide containing this kappa B-like regulatory element proved sufficient to confer Tax inducibility upon a heterologous promoter. DNA affinity precipitation assays showed that Tax, like mitogenic stimuli, induced the expression of the 86-kilodalton cellular protein HIVEN86A, which specifically binds to the IL-2R alpha kappa B element in vitro. Furthermore, DNA/protein cross-linking studies revealed that several polypeptides interact with this sequence motif. Thus, the deregulation of IL-2R alpha gene expression encountered in HTLV-I leukemias appears to involve Tax activation of one or more cellular proteins that are normally induced by mitogens and that directly contribute to transcriptional activation of this receptor gene.