Natural killer (NK) cells are part of the innate lymphoid cell (ILC) family and represent the main cytotoxic population. NK cells develop from bone marrow common lymphoid progenitors and undergo terminal differentiation in the periphery, where they finally gain their cytotoxic competence as well as the ability to produce IFN-γ in response to engagement of activating receptors. This process has been at least partially elucidated and several markers have been identified to discriminate different NK cell stages and other ILC populations. NK cell terminal differentiation is not only associated with progressive phenotypic changes but also with defined effector signatures. In this essay, we will describe the phenotypic and functional characteristics of the main stages of NK cell development and terminal differentiation and discuss them in light of recent discoveries of novel ILC populations.
Keywords: CD57; CD62L; IFN-γ; ILC; KIR; NK cells; NKG2A; differentiation.