Synthesis of interleukin-2 (IL-2) and expression of interleukin-2 receptors play central roles in T-cell activation, proliferation, and differentiation. The state of activation of T lymphocytes in the intestinal lamina propria was compared with that of circulating lymphocytes and lymphocytes isolated from the spleen or mesenteric lymph nodes of normal nonhuman primates. Lamina propria lymphocytes (LPL) had significantly higher proliferation in response to recombinant IL-2 compared with the other populations. In agreement with this finding, LPL had a significantly higher percentage of interleukin-2 receptor-positive (IL-2R+) cells as determined by staining with fluoresceinated monoclonal anti-IL-2R antibody. Two-color immunofluorescence staining showed that both CD4+ and CD8+ lamina propria T cells were IL-2R+. It was also found that the percentage of major histocompatibility complex class II-positive T cells was higher in the lamina propria. Northern blot analysis with a cDNA specific for the IL-2R showed that unstimulated LPL had easily detectable IL-2R mRNA, whereas no IL-2R mRNA was found in unstimulated lymphocyte populations from other sites. The activation of the IL-2R gene in LPL was not associated with the activation of other cellular genes (actin, major histocompatibility complex class I). Although no IL-2 bioactivity was measured in culture supernatants of unstimulated lymphocytes, concanavalin A-stimulated LPL produced significantly more IL-2 than other lymphocytes. This finding was confirmed at the molecular level as IL-2 mRNA was not detected in unstimulated LPL but was found in concanavalin A-stimulated LPL. Thus, normal lamina propria T lymphocytes have selective expression of genes associated with cell activation.