The phenotype and function of lymphocytes from cancer patients treated with repetitive weekly cycles of continuous i.v. infusions of recombinant interleukin 2 (IL-2) were examined. Peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) obtained after IL-2 therapy showed an increased percentage of cells bearing the CD16 and leu19 markers which are associated with natural killer cells. These PBL mediated significantly increased levels of IL-2-dependent lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) activity against the Daudi cell line. Depletion of CD16+ cells from PBL obtained after in vivo IL-2 caused only slight inhibition of their LAK activity or their proliferative response to IL-2 in vitro. This indicates that CD16+ cells are involved but play only a minor role in these responses. In contrast, depletion of leu19+ cells, from PBL activated in vivo with IL-2, virtually abrogated their LAK activity and their proliferative response to IL-2. Two-color flow cytometry studies showed that a leu19+/CD16- population was expanded by in vivo IL-2 therapy and was responsible for the majority of LAK activity by in vivo-activated PBL. Moreover, this CD16- population showed an increased density of leu19 and CD2 (E rosette receptor) antigens when compared to the resting PBL obtained prior to IL-2 treatment. These data show that the predominant population mediating in vitro LAK activity, induced by in vivo IL-2 therapy, consists of activated natural killer cells with a high density of leu19 and CD2 antigens but negative for the CD16 antigen.