Although it is known that activation of natural killer (NK) cells causes liver injury, the mechanisms underlying NK cell-induced killing of self-hepatocytes are not clear. We demonstrated that liver NK cells have cytotoxicity against normal syngeneic hepatocytes in mice. Polyinosinic-polycytidylic acid (poly I:C) treatment enhanced hepatocyte toxicity of liver NK cells but not that of spleen NK cells. Unlike NK cells in other tissues, approximately 30%-40% of liver NK cells constitutively express tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL). An in vitro NK cell cytotoxic assay revealed that hepatocyte toxicity of liver NK cells from both naïve and poly I:C-treated mice was inhibited partially by an anti-TRAIL monoclonal antibody (mAb) alone and completely by the combination with anti-Fas ligand (FasL) mAb and a perforin inhibitor, concanamycin A, indicating contribution of TRAIL to NK cell-mediated hepatocyte toxicity. The majority of TRAIL(+) NK cells lacked expression of Ly-49 inhibitory receptors recognizing self-major histocompatibility complex class I, indicating a propensity to targeting self-hepatocytes. Poly I:C treatment significantly upregulated the expression of Ly-49 receptors on TRAIL(-) NK cells. This might be a compensatory mechanism to protect self-class I-expressing cells from activated NK cell-mediated killing. However, such compensatory alteration was not seen at all in the TRAIL(+) NK cell fraction. Thus, liver TRAIL(+) NK cells have less capacity for self-recognition, and this might be involved in NK cell-dependent self-hepatocyte toxicity. In conclusion, our findings are consistent with a model in which TRAIL-expressing NK cells play a critical role in self-hepatocyte killing through poor recognition of MHC.