To investigate structure/function relationships involved in the delivery of the diphtheria toxin (DT) catalytic (C) domain to the cytosol of target cells, we have constructed and characterized internal in-frame deletion mutants in the transmembrane (T) domain of the fusion toxin DAB389IL-2. This fusion protein is composed of the C and T domains of DT to which human interleukin-2 (IL-2) has been genetically fused. The mutant fusion toxins were compared to DAB389IL-2 with respect to cytotoxic potency, receptor binding affinity, channel formation in planar lipid membranes, and sensitivity to proteolytic digestion. We demonstrate that genetic fusion of human IL-2 sequences to a diphtheria toxin-related fragment that contains less than full-length transmembrane helix 9 results in a fusion protein that binds to the high affinity IL-2 receptor, but has lost > or = 3 logs of cytotoxic potency and has decreased ability to insert into planar membranes and form stable channels. These observations are consistent with the hypothesis that an intact transmembrane helix 9 is essential for the formation of stable channels that are required for the efficient delivery of the C domain to the cytosol of target cells.