Interleukin 2 (IL-2) induced activation of unstimulated resting natural killer (NK) cells or resting T-cells initially occurs following binding of IL-2 through the p75 receptor that is expressed primarily by these cells. However, this IL-2/p75 interaction induces TAC chain synthesis and formation of high affinity IL-2 receptor required for the proliferation of resting peripheral blood lymphocytes. In this study, we present data indicating that NK cells activated by in vivo IL-2 treatment, in contrast to resting NK cells, respond and proliferate to further IL-2 in vitro using primarily the p75 receptor with only a minor component of cells responding through the high affinity receptor. These in vivo activated NK cells minimally expressed the TAC chain and maintained this TAC negative phenotype while proliferating in response to IL-2. The primary involvement of the p75 receptor in the proliferative response of these cells to IL-2 was demonstrated by the need for concentrations of IL-2 higher than 44 pM to obtain a significant response and by the dramatic inhibition of this response by anti-p75 monoclonal antibody. Anti-TAC monoclonal antibody inhibited only the poor proliferation obtained at low doses of IL-2 suggesting a minor role for TAC and high affinity IL-2 receptors. This was in contrast to the partial inhibition of proliferation by anti-p75 or anti-TAC observed in unstimulated pretherapy peripheral blood lymphocytes suggesting that these cells respond to IL-2 through both high affinity receptors and intermediate affinity p75 receptors. The T-cells isolated from in vivo activated peripheral blood lymphocytes, despite expressing TAC, were not responsive to IL-2, suggesting that these cells express predominantly nonfunctional low affinity TAC receptors. NK cells activated by IL-2 in vivo represent a unique model system of IL-2 dependent cells that respond and proliferate to IL-2 essentially through the p75 IL-2 receptor.