The immunostimulatory cytokine interleukin-2 (IL-2) is a growth factor for a wide range of leukocytes, including T cells and natural killer (NK) cells. Considerable effort has been invested in using IL-2 as a therapeutic agent for a variety of immune disorders ranging from AIDS to cancer. However, adverse effects have limited its use in the clinic. On activated T cells, IL-2 signals through a quaternary `high affinity' receptor complex consisting of IL-2, IL-2Rα (termed CD25), IL-2Rβ and IL-2Rγ. Naive T cells express only a low density of IL-2Rβ and IL-2Rγ, and are therefore relatively insensitive to IL-2, but acquire sensitivity after CD25 expression, which captures the cytokine and presents it to IL-2Rβ and IL-2Rγ. Here, using in vitro evolution, we eliminated the functional requirement of IL-2 for CD25 expression by engineering an IL-2 `superkine' (also called super-2) with increased binding affinity for IL-2Rβ. Crystal structures of the IL-2 superkine in free and receptor-bound forms showed that the evolved mutations are principally in the core of the cytokine, and molecular dynamics simulations indicated that the evolved mutations stabilized IL-2, reducing the flexibility of a helix in the IL-2Rβ binding site, into an optimized receptor-binding conformation resembling that when bound to CD25. The evolved mutations in the IL-2 superkine recapitulated the functional role of CD25 by eliciting potent phosphorylation of STAT5 and vigorous proliferation of T cells irrespective of CD25 expression. Compared to IL-2, the IL-2 superkine induced superior expansion of cytotoxic T cells, leading to improved antitumour responses in vivo, and elicited proportionally less expansion of T regulatory cells and reduced pulmonary oedema. Collectively, we show that in vitro evolution has mimicked the functional role of CD25 in enhancing IL-2 potency and regulating target cell specificity, which has implications for immunotherapy.