We examined the role of IL 2 and IL 2 receptors in human T lymphocyte proliferation induced by neuraminidase and galactose oxidase (NAGO)-treated autologous macrophages. T lymphocytes cultured with these aldehyde-bearing macrophages developed responsiveness to IL 2 after as few as 2 to 4 hr of activation and exhibited maximal responsiveness to IL 2 after 18 to 24 hr of activation. This early expression of IL 2 receptors was also shown by the direct binding of a monoclonal anti-IL 2 receptor antibody (anti-Tac) to the activated T lymphocytes. The production of IL 2 by T lymphocytes cultured with NAGO-treated macrophages closely paralleled the induction of IL 2 receptors on the T lymphocytes. IL 2 production began after 4 to 8 hr of activation and peaked at approximately 18 hr. Although the production of IL 2 is strictly dependent upon accessory cell function, the expression of receptors for IL 2 seems to be relatively independent of accessory cells. Despite early expression of receptors for IL 2 and early production of IL 2 by T lymphocytes during activation, T lymphocytes were not committed to proliferate in the absence of IL 2 until more than 24 hr of incubation with NAGO-treated macrophages had elapsed. The commitment to proliferate increased after 24 hr of activation until, after more than 40 hr of activation, the cells proliferated equally well in the presence or absence of IL 2. Proliferation of uncommitted, IL 2 receptor-bearing T lymphocytes was inhibited by interfering with IL 2 binding to its receptor by IL 2 receptor blockade with the anti-Tac antibody. In contrast, proliferation of T lymphocytes committed to proliferate was not affected by IL 2 receptor blockade with the anti-Tac antibody. Taken together, these data suggest three phases of T lymphocyte activation. The first phase requires mitogen (or antigen) to induce expression of IL 2 receptors and production of IL 2 by the T lymphocytes. Accessory cells are strictly required for IL 2 production during this activation phase, but they may not be necessary for expression of IL 2 receptors. The second phase is an IL 2-dependent phase that requires the interaction of IL 2 with the newly expressed IL 2 receptors. The third phase is a commitment of the activated T lymphocytes to proliferate that is independent of both mitogen and IL 2.