Human natural killer (NK) cells form a circulating population in a state of dynamic homeostasis. We investigated NK cell homeostasis by labelling dividing cells in vivo using deuterium-enriched glucose in young and elderly healthy subjects and patients with viral infection. Following a 24-hr intravenous infusion of 6,6-D(2)-glucose, CD3(-) CD16(+) NK cells sorted from peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) by fluorescence-activated cell sorter (FACS) were analysed for DNA deuterium content by gas chromatography mass spectrometry to yield minimum estimates for proliferation rate (p). In healthy young adults (n=5), deuterium enrichment was maximal approximately 10 days after labelling, consistent with postmitotic maturation preceding circulation. The mean (+/- standard deviation) proliferation rate was 4 x 3 +/- 2 x 4%/day (equivalent to a doubling time of 16 days) and the total production rate was 15 +/- (7 x 6) x 10(6) cells/l/day. Labelled cells disappeared from the circulation at a similar rate [6 x 9 +/- 4 x 0%/day; half-life (T((1/2))) < 10 days]. Healthy elderly subjects (n=8) had lower proliferation and production rates (P=2 x 5 +/- 1 x 0%/day and 7 x 3 +/- (3 x 7) x 10(6) cells/l/day, respectively; P=0 x 04). Similar rates were seen in patients chronically infected with human T-cell lymphotropic virus type I (HTLV-I) (P=3 x 2 +/- 1 x 9%/day). In acute infectious mononucleosis (n=5), NK cell numbers were increased but kinetics were unaffected (P=2 x 8 +/- 1 x 0%/day) a mean of 12 days after symptom onset. Human NK cells have a turnover time in blood of about 2 weeks. Proliferation rates appear to fall with ageing, remain unperturbed by chronic HTLV-I infection and normalize rapidly following acute Epstein-Barr virus infection.