STAT transcription factors signal from the plasma membrane to the nucleus in response to growth factors and cytokines. We have investigated whether plasma membrane "rafts" are involved in cytokine-activated STAT signaling. Cytokine-free human hepatoma Hep3B cells or cells treated with interleukin-6 (IL-6) or orthovanadate (a general activator of STATs) were fractionated, and plasma membrane raft fractions were obtained by equilibrium sedimentation or flotation through discontinuous sucrose gradients using either non-detergent or detergent-based (saponin or Triton X-100) methods. By Western blotting the plasma membrane raft fractions obtained using either non-detergent or detergent-based methods contained significant amounts of STAT1 and STAT3 (up to approximately 10% of the total cytoplasmic amount) as well as the integral raft proteins caveolin-1 and flotillin-1, the IL-6-receptor signal transducing chain gp130, the interferon-gamma receptor alpha chain (IFN-gammaRalpha), and the chaperone glucose-regulated protein 58 (GRP58/ER-60/ERp57). Upon activation of signaling by IL-6 or orthovanadate the respective Tyr-phosphorylated STAT species were now also observed in the membrane raft fraction but in a form deficient in DNA binding. The data show pre-association of STATs with plasma membrane rafts in flotation fractions, which also contained caveolin-1 and flotillin-1, and suggest that Tyr phosphorylation may not in itself be sufficient to cause the departure of PY-STATs from plasma membrane rafts. Methyl-beta-cyclodextrin, which sequesters cholesterol and disrupts plasma membrane rafts, markedly inhibited IL-6- and IFN-gamma-induced STAT signaling. Signaling through specialized raft microdomains may be a general mechanism operating at the level of the plasma membrane through which cytokines and growth factors activate STAT species (the "raft-STAT signaling hypothesis").