The role of the CD5 surface molecule in T cell responsiveness to IL-1 was examined. A CD5-mutant Jurkat cell line was generated from a CD5+ parent cell line. This CD5- mutant subclone was infected with a defective retrovirus containing the CD5 cDNA and/or the neo gene encoding G418 resistance. The CD5+ wild type Jurkat produced IL-2 in response to anti-CD3 mAb, OKT3, cross-linked to a solid surface. IL-2 production was enhanced by co-culture with IL-1 or anti-CD5 Mab. Neither the CD5- mutant nor the CD5- G418-resistant infectant responded to anti-CD5 mAb or to IL-1. Responsiveness to IL-1 was restored by cell surface expression of CD5 in the CD5+ infectant. Both the CD5+ wild type Jurkat and the CD5+ infectant responded equivalently to purified IL-1, IL-1 alpha and rIL-1 beta. Optimal concentrations of IL-1 and anti-CD5 mAb had an additive effect on the enhancement of IL-2 production stimulated with cross-linked anti-CD3 mAb suggesting that IL-1 and CD5 act through distinct, complementary pathways to augment T cell activation. The correlation of CD5 expression and specific binding of rIL-1 beta was examined in these cell lines. Both the specific binding (at 4 degrees C) and subsequent internalization (at 37 degrees C) of 125I labeled rIL-1 beta was equivalent in the CD5+ infectant and the CD5+ wild type Jurkat cell, whereas specific binding of 125I-labeled rIL-1 beta was markedly decreased in the CD5-G418-resistant infectant. These observations strongly suggest that cell surface expression of CD5 regulates binding of and responsiveness to IL-1.