Upon mitogenic stimulation, both mRNA encoding the p55 alpha-subunit (Tac) of the human IL-2R alpha and IL-2R alpha protein are induced and expressed in tonsil lymphocyte populations over several days. Using a quantitative dot-blot immunoassay for the IL-2R alpha subunit, a rapid disappearance of this polypeptide from cells is demonstrated in the presence of the translation inhibitor, cycloheximide. The half-life of IL-2R alpha subunit protein is 2 to 3 h. This decline in cell-associated IL-2R alpha subunit is matched by a rapid decline in IL-2R alpha on the cell surface and is not accompanied by any increase in soluble IL-2R alpha protein. Long term expression of the IL-2R on the cell surface is thus the result of continual synthesis and rapid breakdown of IL-2R alpha chains in the cell. Steady state expression of the IL-2R after an immune stimulus hence depends upon continuous expression of the IL-2R alpha subunit gene. Rapid turnover of the unstable alpha-subunit on the cell surface provides a novel mechanism for sensitive control of functional IL-2R expression.