Wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) inhibits proliferation of human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) induced by mitogens and antigens. We investigated the mechanism by which WGA inhibits PHA-induced human lymphocyte proliferation with regard to the interleukin pathway. Our data revealed that although PBMC-proliferation was markedly suppressed by WGA, levels of IL 2 activity in WGA-inhibited cultures were not reduced, but instead were increased, suggesting failure to utilize IL 2. Furthermore, the addition of exogenous IL 2 failed to overcome the suppression. Consistent with these observations, culturing PBMC with PHA plus WGA markedly decreased the number of high-affinity IL 2 receptor per cell, as determined by binding of purified [3H]IL 2, relative to cultures containing PHA alone. WGA immobilized on support beads bound detergent-solubilized IL 2 receptors from PHA-activated T cells, but did not bind human IL 2. However, WGA did not competitively block the binding of [3H]IL 2 to PHA-induced lymphoblasts. These results suggest that WGA inhibits lymphocyte proliferation by binding to and decreasing the number of high-affinity IL 2 receptors displayed on T cells, without impairing IL 2 production.