Using a transient transfection assay, we have defined the sequences required for the activation of the IL-2 gene in response to signals from the T cell antigen receptor. To do so we have transfected the human T cell line Jurkat with hybrid DNA constructs in which fragments from the IL-2 gene are linked to an indicator gene. The indicator gene product, as well as IL-2 production from the endogenous IL-2 gene were assayed after activation of the transfected Jurkat cells by various stimuli. We have demonstrated that a 275 bp fragment stretching from 52 to 326 bp upstream of the IL-2 gene transcription initiation site is required for expression of the linked indicator gene. This IL-2 gene fragment has several of the characteristics of a transcriptional enhancer element, in that it functions in both orientations and will enhance the expression from the promoter of an unrelated gene. Such enhancement occurred only after activation of Jurkat cells through the T cell antigen receptor. More specifically, this 275 bp fragment activated the expression of a linked gene after binding of a monoclonal antibody to the Jurkat T cell antigen receptor in the presence of PMA. In addition, calcium ionophore, which circumvents antigen receptor binding in T cell activation, induced the expression of the linked gene through this 275 bp sequence, in the presence of PMA. Finally, in a mutant Jurkat cell line lacking T3/antigen receptor complexes at the cell surface, no expression due to the IL-2 5' flanking region was seen after exposure to antibody to the T cell antigen receptor plus PMA or to PHA plus PMA. In contrast, calcium ionophore plus PMA did induce the expression of a linked gene through the IL-2 5' flanking region in the mutant Jurkat cell line. The responsiveness of the transfected hybrid genes containing the IL-2 regulatory region paralleled the expression of the endogenous IL-2 gene, as determined by IL-2 bioassays. We conclude that the 275 bp IL-2 sequence (-326 to -52 bp) is a target for the signal pathway originating at the T cell antigen receptor. Definition of this 275 bp target sequence should now permit the isolation of the molecules that bind to and activate the IL-2 gene.