Signals leading to NK cell triggering are primarily mediated by natural cytotoxicity receptors (NCR) upon binding to as-yet-undefined cell surface ligand(s) on normal hematopoietic cells, pathogen-infected cells or tumor cells. In this study we tried to determine whether the decreased NK cell cytolytic function that is observed in HIV-1-infected patients may be related to a decreased expression of NCR. In HIV-1-infected patients, freshly drawn, purified NK cells expressed significantly decreased surface densities of NKp46 and NKp30 NCR. The low surface density of NKp46, NKp30 and NKp44 was also confirmed in in-vitro-activated NK cell populations and NK cell clones derived from HIV-1 patients compared with uninfected donors. This defective NCR expression in HIV-1 patients was associated with a parallel decrease of NCR-mediated killing of different tumor target cells. Thus, the present study indicates that the defective expression of NCR represents at least one of the possible mechanisms leading to the impaired NK cell function in HIV-1 infection and it can contribute to explain the relatively high frequency of opportunistic tumors reported in cohorts of untreated patients before the occurrence of profound immunosuppression (<200 CD4(+) cells/mm(3)).