A negative influence of IL-4 on the IL-2-induced B cell proliferation and differentiation has recently been reported. In this study, we have further investigated a role of IL-4 on human tonsillar B cell proliferation and IL-2R expression. IL-4 enhanced Staphylococcus aureus Cowan 1 strain (SAC)-induced B cell proliferation, reaching the peak on day 3. However, from day 4, IL-4 inhibited IL-2-induced proliferation. In the cross-linking study, IL-4 enhanced the density of 125I-IL-2-binding protein at low affinity binding condition (2 nM of 125I-IL-2) in SAC-activated B cells. However, IL-4 blocked the enhancement in the density of 125I-IL-2-binding proteins induced by IL-2, from day 3, in both high (50 pM of 125I-IL-2) and low affinity binding conditions, suggesting that IL-4 is able to block IL-2-induced IL-2R up-regulation. This was confirmed by a binding study: B cells that cultured for 3 days with SAC plus IL-2 expressed an average of 180 +/- 20 high affinity receptors/cell with a Kd of 12 pM and 5800 +/- 500 low affinity receptors/cell with a Kd of 980 pM. By coculturing with IL-4, high affinity receptors were almost undetectable and the expression of low affinity receptors was reduced by more than 80%. IL-4-mediated inhibition of IL-2-induced IL-2R expression does not seem to be due to the direct interaction between IL-4 and cell surface receptors, inasmuch as preincubation of cells with IL-4 for 60 min at 37 degrees C did not alter the binding of 125I-IL-2 to cells previously cultured for 3 days with SAC plus IL-2. These data suggest that IL-4 has a capacity to block the up-regulation of the high as well as low affinity IL-2R-induced by IL-2 in normal human B cells, and could provide a possible explanation for the decreased responsiveness of B cells to IL-2 in the presence of IL-4.