The cell membrane expression and functional role of the interleukin-2 receptor (IL-2R) was analyzed in nine patients with lymphoproliferative disease of granular lymphocytes (LDGL) using monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs) specific for the p75 (TU27) and the p55 (anti-Tac) subunits of IL-2R. Four patients were characterized by the proliferation of CD3+CD8+ granular lymphocytes (GL) expressing the alpha/beta T-cell receptor (T alpha beta) and one case by the proliferation of CD3+CD4- CD8- GL expressing the gamma/delta T-cell receptor (T gamma delta); in four additional cases proliferating cells were CD3 negative GL. Consistent with data observed on normal GL, phenotypic analysis demonstrated that patients' GL lack the expression of the p55 IL-2R, whereas the p75 subunit is constitutionally expressed by expanding GL of both T-cell (either T alpha beta and T gamma delta) and natural killer (NK) origin in variable proportions (11% to 94% of cells). The analysis of the cytotoxic and proliferative activity demonstrated that the anti-p55 MoAb failed to inhibit IL-2-mediated activation, whereas a marked inhibition of both cytotoxicity and proliferation were obtained using the anti-p75 chain specific MoAb. These data indicate that the p75 chain of IL-2R is responsible for IL-2 signal transduction in both CD3+ and CD3- LDGL patients' GL.