Thymidine uptake by PHA-stimulated human lymphocytes is reduced in the presence of 100 microM or greater concentrations of the iron-chelating agent desferoxamine (DF). We assessed expression of IL 2 receptor, 4F2 and Ia antigens, IL 2 production, and cell cycle progression by blood mononuclear cells (MNC) stimulated by PHA in the presence or absence of DF to determine whether the lack of T cell proliferation was a manifestation of inhibition of an earlier activation event. Tac antigen expression on PHA-stimulated MNC was inhibited by DF throughout 8 days of culture, and those cells which were positive had a low density of Tac antigen as compared with controls without DF. Expression of other activation antigens, 4F2 and Ia, was not impaired by DF. The supernatants of the DF-containing and control cultures contained equivalent IL 2 activity, as measured on the HT-2 cell line. Cell cycle analysis of these cultures shows that the addition of DF at the beginning of culture blocks most cells from undergoing G0 to G1 transition, whereas later addition of DF arrests the progression of the T cell blasts through the cell cycle. Separation of cells cultured with PHA and DF into Tac+ and Tac- subsets showed that progression from G0 to G1 was restricted to the former subset. These results suggest that interference with IL 2 receptor expression might contribute to the block in mitogen-induced proliferation caused by DF.