Binding of IL-2 to the high affinity IL-2R results in the formation of a stable complex consisting of IL-2 and at least three distinct, noncovalently associated receptor subunits: IL-2R alpha (p55), IL-2R beta (p70-75), and IL-2R gamma (p64). Ligand binding also stimulates the rapid endocytosis of this receptor complex. To gain further insight into the function of the various subunits of the multicomponent high affinity IL-2R complex, we have carried out binding, internalization, and proliferation assays using an IL-2 analog designated F42A that contains a single Phe for Ala amino acid substitution at position 42. This mutation markedly reduces the intrinsic affinity of the resultant IL-2 analog for the low affinity IL-2R alpha subunit although having little or no effect on binding to the IL-2R beta (or IL-2R beta/gamma) intermediate affinity receptor. We have confirmed that F42A does not bind to the IL-2R alpha chain when expressed alone on MT-1 cells or in the presence of the large or small excess of IL-2R beta chains present on either YT-1 cells or forskolin-induced YT-1 cells, respectively. However, although F42A does not interact with the large number of low affinity IL-2R alpha chains present on HUT 102B2 cells, this ligand does bind to the small number of IL-2R beta chains present on these cells with at least 10-fold higher than expected affinity. These findings indicate that excess IL-2R alpha chains may exert positive effects on binding perhaps by changing the conformation of IL-2R beta. In F42A-stimulated internalization assays on forskolin-induced YT-1 cells, the IL-2R alpha chain is consistently endocytosed together with the IL-2R beta subunit indicating that IL-2R alpha is stably associated with the F42A-IL-2R beta complex even though the alpha-subunit contributes little if any affinity to the F42A binding reaction. In proliferation assays on mouse IL-3-dependent pro-B BA/F3 cells stably coexpressing transfected human IL-2R alpha and IL-2R beta subunits (but a mouse IL-2R gamma subunit), F42A proved to be a more effective agonist of growth than wild-type IL-2. These results suggest that the interaction between wild-type IL-2 but not F42A and the IL-2R alpha subunit in this mixed species high affinity receptor complex may induce an unfavorable receptor conformation leading to diminished rather than enhanced growth signal transduction.