Cells participating in the rIL 2-induced proliferation of resting PBMC were identified by using different methods of cell purification. NK cells recovered in the light density fraction of Percoll gradients responded, as already known, directly to rIL 2 by strong proliferation. In contrast, large T lymphocytes co-purifying with NK cells, and small T cells sedimenting in the high density area of the Percoll gradients, were virtually unresponsive when cultivated in the sole presence of rIL 2. However, the addition of either irradiated autologous monocytes or highly purified IL 1 allowed both kinds of T cells to undergo cell division. Stringent elimination of possibly contaminating NK cells (NKH-1+) and/or activated T cells (TNKTAR, Tac+, HLA-DR+) from the high density T cells by complement lysis did not impair rIL 2-induced cell proliferation, indicating entire responsiveness of these cells to the synergistic action of IL 1 plus IL 2. Both high density CD4+ and CD8+ participated in this phenomenon, with an apparent advantage for CD4+ cells. All Tac+ cells emerging in a 6-day culture of these cells expressed the WT31 antigen, which indicates that T cells involved in rIL 2-induced proliferation are conventional mature T cells. The relative precursor frequencies of NK cells, large T lymphocytes, and small T lymphocytes that proliferated in response to rIL 2 were analyzed by limiting dilution analysis. The frequencies of clonal growth of NK cells and low density T lymphocytes were approximately the same (1/103 vs 1/185), whereas that of high density T cells was four times lower (1/458). Thus, we clearly demonstrate that resting T cells, defined as such by morphological, density, and phenotypic criteria, are able to proliferate in response to IL 2 in the presence of IL 1 without antigenic or mitogenic triggering.