Freshly isolated decidual large granular lymphocytes (LGL) show natural killer (NK) activity against K562 cells but not against normal human trophoblast. We now show that these decidual LGL proliferate in vitro in response to recombinant interleukin-2 (rIL-2) and that these rIL-2-stimulated cells acquire a broad cytolytic potential that is characteristic of lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) cells. Both fetal fibroblasts and JEG-3 choriocarcinoma cells are resistant to lysis by freshly isolated decidual effectors but are readily killed by IL-2-stimulated decidual LGL. The ability to kill these target cells is acquired after only 18 hr exposure to rIL-2. rIL-2-activated decidual LGL also kill cultured normal trophoblast cells but much lower levels of cytolysis were seen even after the effectors had been stimulated with rIL-2 for 4-6 days. The preferential killing of malignant over normal human trophoblast cells raises questions about the potential role of IL-2-activated decidual LGL in the control of unduly invasive or malignant trophoblast populations in vivo.