In a model of Staphylococcus aureus-induced septic arthritis in C57Bl/6 mice we investigated the role of natural killer (NK) cells in the development of disease. Depletion of NK1.1+ cells was achieved by repeated injections of the PK136 antibody, whereas control mice received an irrelevant monoclonal antibody, O1C5.B2. Both groups of mice then received injections intravenously with 2 x 107 live S. aureus LS-1 secreting toxic shock syndrome toxin-1 (TSST-1). The mice were evaluated for 16 days with regard to weight, mortality and arthritis. Nine days after bacterial injection, 9/19 mice depleted of NK cells had developed arthritis compared with 1/17 in the control group (P = 0.01). The experiment was repeated twice with the same outcome. NK cell-depleted and control mice displayed the same degree of histopathological signs of arthritis at day 16. Depletion of NK cells did not affect uptake of bacteria by phagocytic cells in vitro, or bacterial clearance in vivo. In NK cell-depleted mice there was a tendency to increased levels of antibodies to TSST-1, whereas total immunoglobulin levels were similar to those in controls. NK cell depletion of non-infected mice did not affect the magnitude of inflammatory response during the T cell-dependent cutaneous DTH reaction to oxazolone, or during granulocyte-mediated inflammation. However, specific antibody responses to oxazolone were greatly increased in depleted animals. In conclusion, our study demonstrates that NK cells protect against arthritis during S. aureus infection. This outcome does not seem to be due to an influence on bacterial clearance, but could be due to an interaction with the host anti-inflammatory mechanisms.