Background: Antigen-receptor interactions on lymphocytes result in local clustering of actin, receptors and signaling molecules into an asymmetric membrane structure termed a cap. Although actin polymerization is known to be required, the mechanisms underlying cap formation are unclear. We have studied the events underlying cap formation using mice bearing a null mutation in vav (vav(-/-)), a gene that encodes a guanine-nucleotide exchange factor for the GTPase Rac. Results: Lymphocytes from vav(-/-) mice failed to form T-cell receptor caps following activation and had a defective actin cytoskeleton. The vav(-/-) T cells were deficient in interleukin-2 (IL-2) production and proliferation, and the peak of Ca2+ mobilization was reduced although of normal duration. Activation of Jun N-terminal kinase or stress-activated kinase (JNK or SAPK) and mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) and the induction of the transcription factor NF-ATc1 and egr-1 genes was normal. Despite the reduced Ca2+ mobilization, translocation of cytoplasmic NF-ATc to the nucleus was normal, reflecting that the lower levels of Ca2+ in vav(-/-) cells were still sufficient to activate calcineurin. Treatment of lymphocytes with cytochalasin D, which blocks actin polymerization, inhibited cap formation and produced defects in signaling and IL-2 transcriptional induction in response to antigen-receptor signaling that were nearly identical to those seen in vav(-/-) cells. In transfection studies, either constitutively active Vav or Rac could complement constitutively active calcineurin to activate NF-AT-dependent transcription. Conclusions: These results indicate that Vav is required for cap formation in lymphocytes. Furthermore, the correlation between cap formation, IL-2 production and proliferation supports the hypothesis that an actin-dependent pathway is a source of specialized growth regulatory signals.