Previous evidence suggested that NF-kappaB-inducing kinase (NIK) might regulate IL-2 synthesis. However, the molecular mechanism is not understood. In this study, we show that NIK is involved in CD3 plus CD28 activation of IL-2 transcription. Splenic T cells from aly/aly mice (that have a defective NIK protein) have a severe impairment in IL-2 and GM-CSF but not TNF secretion in response to CD3/CD28. This effect takes place at the transcriptional level as overexpression of alyNIK inhibits IL-2 promoter transcription. NIK activates the CD28 responsive element (CD28RE) of the IL-2 promoter and strongly synergizes with c-Rel in this activity. We found that NIK interacts with the N-terminal domain of c-Rel, mapping this interaction to aa 771-947 of NIK. Moreover, NIK phosphorylates the c-Rel C-terminal transactivation domain (TAD) and induces Gal4-c-Rel-transactivating activity. Anti-CD28 activated Gal4-c-Rel transactivation activity, and this effect was inhibited by a NIK-defective mutant. Deletion studies mapped the region of c-Rel responsive to NIK in aa 456-540. Mutation of several serines, including Ser471, in the TAD of c-Rel abrogated the NIK-enhancing activity of its transactivating activity. Interestingly, a Jurkat mutant cell line that expresses one of the mutations of c-Rel (Ser471Asn) has a severe defect in IL-2 and CD28RE-dependent transcription in response to CD3/CD28 or to NIK. Our results support that NIK may be controlling CD28RE-dependent transcription and T cell activation by modulating c-Rel phosphorylation of the TAD. This leads to more efficient transactivation of genes which are dependent on CD28RE sites where c-Rel binds such as the IL-2 promoter.