IL-2R on activated lymphocytes contain the Tac protein. As part of an effort to characterize this molecule, we examined the structure-activity relationship for each of its 12 Cys residues. A preliminary map of intramolecular disulfide bonding was derived by analysis of cystine-linked enzymatic fragments of the Tac protein. The results indicated that disulfide bonds linked Cys-3 with Cys-147, Cys-131 with Cys-163, and Cys-28,30 with Cys-59,61. The contribution of the Cys residues to an active protein conformation was tested by site-specific mutagenesis, followed by expression of the modified molecules in murine L cells. The results indicated that Cys-192 and -225 could be replaced without affecting ligand binding. In contrast, modification of any of the other 10 Cys residues, either singly or in combinations corresponding to the predicted disulfide bonds, greatly reduced the ability of the corresponding protein to bind IL-2 or either of two mAb (anti-Tac and 7G7/B6) which recognize the Tac protein. Each of the latter mutations also interfered with the molecule's post-translational modification and cell-surface expression. Consistent with these findings, transfection of the L cells with vectors containing truncated Tac cDNA inserts resulted in secretion of Tac fragments capable of ligand binding when the polypeptide chains terminated after Cys-163 (the 10th Cys residue in the full length molecule), but resulted in inactive fragments of Tac which were poorly secreted when they terminated before Cys-163. These findings emphasize the remarkable sensitivity of the active conformation of the Tac molecule to each of the postulated intramolecular disulfide bonds.