The mechanism of induction of cytotoxicity produced by anti-CD3 monoclonal antibody (MoAb) was studied in four patients with CD3+ large granular lymphocyte (LGL) leukemia. Anti-CD3 MoAb treatment resulted in increased target cell binding and increased granule formation. After activation, leukemic LGL remained Tac-, with the exception of a patient with CD4+ LGL leukemia. Radiolabeled interleukin-2 (IL-2) binding studies demonstrated that treatment with anti-CD3 MoAb resulted in upregulation of the number of p75 intermediate affinity IL-2 receptor sites per cell. Northern blot hybridization analysis showed expression of gamma-interferon gene transcripts 24 to 48 hours after activation. There was no evidence for expression of IL-2 messenger RNA or secretion of IL-2 after activation. Anti-CD3 MoAb and IL-2 provide different signals for activation of CD3+ LGL. Induction of cytotoxicity produced by anti-CD3 MoAb in leukemic CD3+ LGL is not associated with IL-2 production.