The newly identified cytokine, IL-15 enhanced antigen-induced proliferation of PBMC obtained from HIV-1-seropositive subjects. When compared to IL-2 which enhanced both spontaneous and antigen-induced lymphocyte proliferative responses, IL-15 rarely increased spontaneous lymphocyte proliferation. Additionally, in cultures of lymphocytes obtained from 15 HIV-1-infected patients with < 300 circulating CD4- lymphocytes/microliter IL-15 induced significant HIV-1 expression (46, 21, and 71 pg/ml) in only 3 of 15 experiments and IL-2 induced significant HIV-1 expression (range 16- > 5000 pg/ml) in 11 of 15 experiments (P < 0.01, Fischer's exact test). Simultaneous assays of cytokine-induced spontaneous lymphocyte proliferation and HIV-1 expression revealed similar dose-response relationships for induction of HIV-1 and lymphocyte proliferation by IL-2. Thus, IL-15 helps to correct the impaired proliferative response of CD4+ lymphocytes from HIV-1-infected persons without the mitogenic effect of IL-2 that also may induce HIV-1 expression.