Interleukin-2 (IL-2) controls the proliferation of the murine T cell line B6.1 and induces transferrin receptor (TfR) mRNA steady-state levels 50-fold when added to arrested, IL-2-deprived cells. In addition, TfR mRNA is post-transcriptionally regulated by intracellular iron. Low iron levels activate a cytoplasmic RNA-binding protein, called iron regulatory factor (IRF) or iron-responsive element-binding protein, which coordinately stabilizes TfR mRNA and inhibits ferritin mRNA translation. Since ferritin expression is known to be modulated by cytokines, we decided to investigate the mechanism by which IL-2 activates TfR gene expression in B6.1 cells. Induction by IL-2 of both nuclear and cytoplasmic TfR RNA was compared with run-on transcription rates in isolated nuclei. The results revealed a 3-fold increase in TfR gene transcription and a 6-fold rise in nuclear TfR RNA reaching its steady-state level within 2 h. The main accumulation of mature mRNA in the cytoplasm occurred after 6 h in parallel with the activation of IRF. However, stimulation of IRF binding activity by the iron chelator desferrioxamine, in the absence of IL-2, failed to induce TfR mRNA. Moreover, deprivation of growing B6.1 cells of IL-2 resulted in cell arrest and a rapid decay of TfR mRNA, which was not prevented by the activation of IRF with desferrioxamine. TfR mRNA stabilization appears, therefore, to depend on IL-2. We conclude that TfR mRNA expression is controlled by at least three steps at the onset of cell proliferation: (i) the growth factor-dependent activation of transcription; (ii) mRNA stabilization by IRF in the cytoplasm; and (iii) an additional IL-2-dependent activity which prevents TfR mRNA degradation. Our results indicate that expression of TfR, like ferritin, is controlled by both iron and cytokines.