IL-15, a newly described cytokine exerting IL-2-like in vitro activities, binds to and induces proliferation of cells co-expressing IL-15R alpha, IL-2R beta, and IL-2R gamma chains. To study the expression of human IL-15R alpha chains, we have utilized tagged human IL-15 protein and FACS analysis. In contrast to resting cells, mitogen-activated macrophages, NK cells, and CD4+ and CD8+ T cells express IL-15R alpha chains. Neither IL-2R alpha nor IL-2R beta chains are required for IL-15 binding. Dexamethasone, but not cyclosporine or rapamycin, blocks mitogen-induced IL-15R alpha expression. Dexamethasone-pretreated cells respond to IL-15 poorly, while the response to IL-2 is not affected. Thus, despite structural and functional similarities between IL-2R alpha and IL-15R alpha chains, the activation-triggered mechanisms of induction are different. Since IL-15R alpha chain is necessary and sufficient for IL-15 binding, regulation of IL-15R alpha expression may represent a new target for T cell-directed pharmacologic intervention.