High concentrations of interleukin 2 (IL 2) were shown to produce a delayed but pronounced proliferation of purified resting T cells in the apparent absence of other activation signals. Because these stimulatory effects of IL 2 occurred in the absence of detectable Tac+ cells, the possibility that IL 2 might be initially interacting with an IL 2 binding protein distinct from the Tac protein was studied. Chemical cross-linking studies with 125I-IL 2 revealed the presence of an IL 2 binding protein distinct from the Tac protein on the surface of these unstimulated T cells. This second IL 2 receptor has an estimated molecular size of 70,000 daltons, lacks reactivity with the anti-Tac antibody, and appears to be identical to the p70 protein recently proposed as a component of the high affinity IL 2 receptor. Scatchard analysis of IL 2 binding assays performed with the unactivated T cells revealed approximately 600 to 700 p70 sites per cell and an apparent Kd of 340 pM. These data indicate that the p70 protein present on resting T cells binds IL 2 with an intermediate affinity compared with the previously recognized high and low affinity forms of the receptor and may account for the high concentration of IL 2 needed to induce resting T cell proliferation. To investigate the early biologic consequences of IL 2 binding to the p70 protein, potential changes in the expression of genes involved in T cell activation were examined. Northern blotting revealed the rapid induction of c-myc, c-myb, and Tac mRNA after stimulation of resting T cells with a high concentration of IL 2. The anti-Tac antibody did not inhibit IL 2 induced expression of these genes, suggesting that the p70 protein rather than the Tac antigen or the high affinity IL 2 receptor complex mediated this signal. However, in contrast to these early activation events, the anti-Tac antibody significantly inhibited IL 2 induced T cell proliferation. This finding implicates the high affinity form of the IL 2 receptor in the proliferative response of the IL 2 activated T cells. Thus these data support a two step model for the induction of resting T cell proliferation by high doses of IL 2 involving the initial generation of an activation or "competence" signal through the p70 protein and a subsequent proliferation or "progression" signal through the high affinity form of the receptor.