Interleukin-2 (IL-2) signals influence various lymphocyte subsets during differentiation, immune responses and homeostasis. As discussed in this Review, stimulation with IL-2 is crucial for the maintenance of regulatory T (T(Reg)) cells and for the differentiation of CD4(+) T cells into defined effector T cell subsets following antigen-mediated activation. For CD8(+) T cells, IL-2 signals optimize both effector T cell generation and differentiation into memory cells. IL-2 is presented in soluble form or bound to dendritic cells and the extracellular matrix. Use of IL-2 - either alone or in complex with particular neutralizing IL-2-specific antibodies - can amplify CD8(+) T cell responses or induce the expansion of the T(Reg) cell population, thus favouring either immune stimulation or suppression.