The biology of human natural killer-cell subsets

Trends Immunol. 2001 Nov;22(11):633-40. doi: 10.1016/s1471-4906(01)02060-9.


Human natural killer (NK) cells comprise approximately 15% of all circulating lymphocytes. Owing to their early production of cytokines and chemokines, and ability to lyse target cells without prior sensitization, NK cells are crucial components of the innate immune system. Human NK cells can be divided into two subsets based on their cell-surface density of CD56--CD56(bright) and CD56(dim)--each with distinct phenotypic properties. Now, there is ample evidence to suggest that these NK-cell subsets have unique functional attributes and, therefore, distinct roles in the human immune response. The CD56(dim) NK-cell subset is more naturally cytotoxic and expresses higher levels of Ig-like NK receptors and FCgamma receptor III (CD16) than the CD56(bright) NK-cell subset. By contrast, the CD56(bright) subset has the capacity to produce abundant cytokines following activation of monocytes, but has low natural cytotoxicity and is CD16(dim) or CD16(-). In addition, we will discuss other cell-surface receptors expressed differentially by human NK-cell subsets and the distinct functional properties of these subsets.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • CD56 Antigen / immunology
  • CD56 Antigen / metabolism*
  • Cell Adhesion Molecules / metabolism
  • Cytokines / biosynthesis
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Cytotoxicity, Immunologic
  • Humans
  • Killer Cells, Natural / classification
  • Killer Cells, Natural / cytology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Killer Cells, Natural / metabolism*
  • Lymphocyte Subsets / classification
  • Lymphocyte Subsets / cytology
  • Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology
  • Lymphocyte Subsets / metabolism
  • Models, Immunological
  • Receptors, Chemokine / immunology
  • Receptors, Chemokine / metabolism
  • Receptors, Cytokine / immunology
  • Receptors, Cytokine / metabolism
  • Receptors, Immunologic / immunology
  • Receptors, Immunologic / metabolism


  • CD56 Antigen
  • Cell Adhesion Molecules
  • Cytokines
  • Receptors, Chemokine
  • Receptors, Cytokine
  • Receptors, Immunologic