In an effort to clarify the mechanism by which certain plant lectins induce lymphocyte activation, we have studied amino acid (amino[14C]isobutyric acid) uptake in purified human lymphocytes exposed to mitogenic and nonmitogenic lectins. In confirmation of earlier work, mitogenic lectins (concanavalin A and two phytohemagglutinins) produced a dose-related, 2- to 10-fold increase in aminoisobutyric acid transport. Changes occurred as early as 2 hours and reached a maximum after 18 hours. The stimulation by concanavalin A was inhibited by alpha-methyl-D-mannoside but not by other selected monosaccharides, indicating that the effect is modulated through specific carbohydrate receptors. In contrast to the stimulation with concanavalin A and phytohemagglutinin, the nonmitogen wheat germ agglutinin inhibited aminoisobutyric acid transport, both in the presence and absence of the mitogenic lectins. The inhibition was seen over a broad wheat germ agglutinin dose range, was prevented by N-acetylglucosamine, a known inhibitor of wheat germ agglutinin binding, and did not appear to be associated with cytotoxicity. Comparative binding studies with radiolabeled concanavalin A and wheat germ agglutinin demonstrated that differences in transport occurred in cells containing comparable numbers of bound lectin molecules indicating that the failure of wheat germ agglutinin to stimulate a response was not a result of ineffective binding. The lack of stimulation by wheat germ agglutinin was not due to its inability to interact multivalently with membrane receptors since this lectin is divalent, produces capping and agglutination, and continues to inhibit aminoisobutyric acid transport even after the minimum valence was increased to 4 by cross-linking with glutaraldehyde. In contrast both divalent and tetravalent concanavalin A produced stimulation. Competitive binding studies with soluble wheat germ agglutinin or lectin attached to 300 A latex spheres revealed little or no competition for binding sites with radiolabeled concanavalin A, suggesting the two lectins are interacting with different receptors. This was further suggested by kinetic studies of aminoisobutyric acid transport which indicated that wheat germ agglutinin was probably affecting both the Vmax and Km of transport, whereas concanavalin A affected only the Vmax. While the mechanism by which concanavalin A and wheat germ agglutinin produce opposing effects on amino acid transport is not clear, since the two lectins appear to be interacting with different surface receptors we would suggest that they are perturbing microanatomically and functionally different domains on the lymphocyte plasma membrane.