In this study, specific antibodies against natural killer (NK) cell surface markers identify these cells to be commonly present in normal intestinal mucosa of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and carcinoma patients. Cells expressing the CD56 adhesion molecule were found to be far more abundant than CD16+ cells. Functional studies revealed that cells mediating non-major histocompatibility complex-restricted cytotoxicity (NK activity) in the lamina propria express the CD56 surface antigen, whereas only a minority of this activity resides in the population with CD16 expression. This is in contrast with peripheral blood NK cells, which were found to be almost exclusively both CD16+ and CD56+. Moreover, in the lamina propria of the intestine we found CD3+ T lymphocytes not to be involved in spontaneous cell-mediated killing of tumor cells. Considerably higher numbers of cells with the CD16 or CD56 surface markers were found to be present in normal mucosa of IBD patients compared with normal mucosa of carcinoma patients, which was also reflected in higher levels of cytotoxicity detected in lamina propria mononuclear cell preparations from normal IBD mucosa. Because of the disease-related localization of the mucosa studied from both patient groups, i.e. ileum vs. colon, the observed differences may be related to tissue characteristics. Within the IBD group, relatively high levels of cytotoxicity were found in cell preparations from normal mucosa of Crohn's disease patients compared with ulcerative colitis patients, which might support the current concept that Crohn's disease affects the whole of the gastrointestinal tract.