Lectin-induced DNA synthesis by peripheral mononuclear cells from 17 normal donors was inhibited (40-60%) by 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 (1,25[OH]2D3) at physiological concentrations (10(-10)-10(-9) M). The lymphocytes acquire specific receptors for 1,25(OH)2D3 upon activation by the lectins. This process precedes the inhibitory effect of 1,25(OH)2D3. We studied lymphocytes from six patients from four different kindreds with the syndrome of hereditary end-organ resistance to 1,25(OH)2D (the so-called vitamin D-dependent rickets type II). In five patients (three kindreds) peripheral blood mononuclear cells did not acquire receptors for 1,25(OH)2D3 upon phytohemagglutinin-induced activation. Moreover, in contrast to normal lymphocytes, the mitogenic stimulation of these patients' lymphocytes by phytohemagglutinin and concanavalin A was not inhibited by 1,25(OH)2D3. Activated lymphocytes of the sixth patient from a fourth kindred exhibited normal binding of [3H]1,25(OH)2D3 but the hormone failed to inhibit the mitogenic stimulation. A similar pattern of the vitamin D effector system was previously observed in fibroblasts cultured from skin biopsies of the same group of patients. The conclusions from these findings are: (a) the inhibition of mitogenic stimulation by 1,25(OH)2D3 is mediated by specific functional receptors to the hormone; and (b) the receptors for 1,25(OH)2D3 in mononuclear cells are probably controlled genetically by the same mechanisms as the effector system in well-characterized target organs of the hormone, such as intestine and kidney.