Limited frequencies of T cells express IL-2 in primary antigenic responses, despite activation marker expression and proliferation by most clonal members. To define the basis for restricted IL-2 expression, a videomicroscopic system and IL-2 reporter transgenic model were used to characterize dendritic cell (DC)-T cell interactions. T cells destined to produce IL-2 required prolonged interactions with DCs, whereas most T cells established only transient interactions with DCs and were activated, but did not express IL-2. Extended conjugation of T cells with DCs was not always sufficient to initiate IL-2 expression. Thus, there is intrinsic variability in clonal T cell populations that restricts IL-2 commitment, and prolonged engagement with mature DCs is necessary, but not sufficient, for IL-2 gene transcription.