The expression of interleukin-2 receptors (IL-2R) and proliferating cell nuclear antigens (PCNA) were compared for their usefulness as markers of lymphocyte activation. Heterologous polyclonal (anti-bovine IL-2R) and monoclonal (anti-human PCNA) antibodies were used to detect the expression of these molecules on activated deer lymphocytes. Both molecules were co-expressed on blast cells which had been activated with mitogen [concanavalin A (Con A)]. There was detectable up-regulation of IL-2R expression in response to antigen [Mycobacterium bovis-derived purified protein derivative (PPD)] stimulation while PCNA expression mimicked lymphocyte transformation (LT) reactivity. PCNA expression was found to more accurately reflect both antigen- and mitogen-activated lymphocyte activation, as estimated by LT activity. The expression of PCNA was used to identify antigen reactive cells from animals exposed to M. bovis. A very low percentage (1.1 +/- 0.4%) of peripheral blood lymphocytes from non-infected animals could be stimulated to express PCNA by in vitro culture with antigen (PPD). Within the infected group both diseased and healthy, 'in-contact', animals expressed significantly higher levels of PCNA upon antigen stimulation.