Interleukin (IL)-15 is a multifunctional cytokine that shares many biological activities with IL-2. This functional overlap, as well as receptor binding subunits shared by IL-15 and IL-2, suggests tertiary structural similarities between these two cytokines. In this study, recombinant human IL-15 was PEGylated via lysine-specific conjugation chemistry in order to extend the circulation half-life of this cytokine. Although PEGylation did extend the beta-elimination circulation half-life of IL-15 by greater than 50-fold, the biological activity of polyethylene glycol (PEG)-IL-15 was significantly altered. Specifically, PEG-IL-15 lost its ability to stimulate the proliferation of CTLL but took on the properties of a specific IL-15 antagonist in vitro. In comparing sequence alignments and molecular models for IL-2 and IL-15, it was noted that lysine residues resided in regions of IL-15 that may have selectively disrupted receptor subunit binding. We hypothesized that PEGylation of IL-15 interferes with beta but not alpha receptor subunit binding, resulting in the IL-15 antagonist activity observed in vitro. The validity of this hypothesis was tested by engineering site-specific mutants of human IL-15 as suggested by the IL-15 model (IL-15D8S and IL-15Q108S block beta and gamma receptor subunit binding, respectively). As with PEG-IL-15, these mutants were unable to stimulate CTLL proliferation but were able to specifically inhibit the proliferation of CTLL in response to unmodified IL-15. These results supported our model of IL-15 and confirmed that interference of beta receptor subunit binding by adjacent PEGylation could be responsible for the altered biological activity observed for PEG-IL-15.