Optimal activation of T cells requires at least two signals. One signal can be delivered by the antigen-specific T-cell receptor, and the second signal is provided by the costimulatory molecule(s) delivered by the antigen-presenting cell. CD28 is a T-cell surface molecule and stimulation through this protein plays an important role in delivering the second activation signal. In this report, we show that in human peripheral blood T cells, CD28-mediated signal transduction involves the rel family proteins--c-Rel, p50, and p65. Treatment of peripheral blood T cells with phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) and anti-CD28 monoclonal antibody (mAb) results in augmentation of nuclear c-Rel, p50, and p65, and this augmentation can occur in the presence of the immunosuppressant cyclosporin A. It is also shown in this report that, in response to PMA/anti-CD28 mAb or anti-CD3/anti-CD28 mAb, c-Rel, p50, and p65 are associated with CD28-responsive element present in the promoter of the human interleukin 2 gene. The functional significance of c-Rel involvement in the CD28-responsive complex is demonstrated by transient transfection analysis, where cotransfection of c-Rel augments the level of expression of a chloramphenicol acetyltransferase reporter gene linked to the CD28-responsive element.