Several reports indicate that human peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) seeded in culture with purified or recombinant interleukin 2 (IL 2) immediately after separation from the blood display a substantial level of proliferation at day 5 or 6, even in the absence of any activating signal. The spontaneously IL 2 proliferating cells are large lymphocytes, and they co-purify on a Percoll gradient in the large granular lymphocytes (third (LGL) fraction) together with the natural killer (NK) activity. When LGL were separated into NKH1 (an NK-specific surface marker)-positive and NKH1-negative cells by fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS), proliferating cells were mainly found in the NKH1-negative fraction. On the contrary, when cells from Percoll fraction 3 were separated into OKT3-negative and positive cells, the majority of the proliferating cell was found in the OKT3-positive cells. These results indicate that spontaneously IL 2 proliferating (SIP) cells most probably belong to the T cell lineage, but are distinct from NK cells. Surprisingly, cells from this Percoll fraction examined immediately after separation from the blood do not express detectable amounts of IL 2 receptors as assessed by three different techniques: binding of [3H]IL 2, binding of [125I]anti-Tac antibodies, and FACS analysis with the use of anti-Tac antibodies. However, after 18 hr of culture in IL 2-supplemented medium, 5 to 7% of these cells became Tac-positive by FACS analysis. Additional analysis of IL 2 receptor induced in culture with IL 2 was performed by [125I]anti-TAC binding and by [3H]IL 2 binding. Scatchard analysis of [3H]IL 2 binding, in the range of concentrations leading to the detection of high-affinity binding sites, showed an affinity constant similar to that of conventional phytohemagglutinin blasts. The role of IL 2/IL 2 receptor interaction in the proliferation process was confirmed by the fact that proliferation, in contrast with NK activation, was clearly inhibited by anti-Tac antibodies. When LGL activated with IL 2 for 60 hr were sorted into Tac+ and Tac- cells, equal levels of NK activity was found in the two fractions. Proliferation, however, was only observed in the Tac+ population. We interpret these results to indicate that SIP cells are preactivated cells circulating in the blood. They are large cells and represent a very small proportion of circulating lymphocytes (0.3%). They express a subliminal amount of IL 2 receptor. Cultivated in the presence of IL 2, IL 2 receptor expression is enhanced to a detectable level, and the SIP cells begin to proliferate. These SIP cells could be activated T cells present in every normal individual.